If I had to name any highlights from this crazy — and terrible — year, I would point to the morning I spent with the sculptor Michael Wolf in his studio in New Jersey. I was not there physically — rather, Michael beamed me into his space via Zoom. For an hour or so, he took me on a tour, and with his computer camera, showed me what he’s been working on for the past few years. Even today, listening to the recording of the conversation, which took place in August, I feel suffused with warmth for Michael, and for his work. With his Irish Catholic roots, his deep tristate-area accent and his kindness and learnedness, he makes me feel proud of my own heritage as an Irish Catholic New Yorker.
Michael is a deeply talented artist whose practice is suffused with empathy. The first work he showed me was Sanctuary (2015), which resembles a tin outhouse, and was inspired by a photograph of a mother and two children killed in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. The entrance to the outhouse is a polished metal tunnel, whose opening is the height of the stick used to measure children upon their arrival at the camps — if they were shorter than the stick, they were put to death immediately. If not, they were put to work. When the work was shown at the Orlando Museum of Art in 2015, viewers were invited to crawl through the tunnel to the structure, where they found their ability to stand up straight hindered by a plexiglass roof covered in dirt. The roof was meant to resemble the hiding places used by Jewish families desperate to avoid the camps. On the floor of the structure lay a gilded pillow, imprinted with Michael’s own head, and the phrase, “The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads to bury itself deep somewhere inside our memories.” Taken from a poem written by a child in a concentration camp, the phrase could very well portend the way that the past year of the pandemic will stay lodged deep within all of our souls.
Mass tragedies are often embedded within the fabric of Michael’s sculptures. Many of his sculptures and installations use pieces of wood salvaged from trees that were felled during Hurricane Sandy, for example. In “A Long Journey to Nowhere,” which originally appeared at Gallery Aferro in Newark, New Jersey, Michael created, for one aspect of the installation, a boat out of a tree limb he found near his home in New Jersey after the storm. The boat is loaded with a chain — it refers both to the chains used to bound humans during the transatlantic slave trade, and the chains used by Michael’s father, an auto mechanic, in his shop in New Jersey. Alongside the chain, which trails from the boat to the viewer, lie a series of human hands cast in plaster that seem to be pulling themselves across the floor. “People came to the dream that was America, either voluntarily, or because they were forced,” Michael said of the work, which he says embodies the immigrant experience. “And when people get here, it’s not quite what they expect, it’s a lot more difficult.”
The shape of a simple, four-side house appears frequently in the sculptures Michael creates. In Michael’s work, houses are gilded and polished; they give shelter to gilded replicas of the Venus of Willendorf; they are cracked, or scratched or solid, unable to be broken apart. Michael’s houses stand in as metaphors for the human body, and by extension, the human experience. In “Sanctuary,” which appeared at Monica King Gallery this summer, a house, constructed from a copper sheet, was missing two sides, and resembled a tunnel. The outside of the house was aged, and dull. The inside, a gleaming, but solid, mass of un-corrupted copper. “People can kind of fill in the emptiness of what their thoughts are on the inside of this house,” Michael said.
Michael describes the lockdown due to the pandemic at the beginning of March and April as deeply dark. During that period, he had a dream in which he was making deep gouges in wood — almost as if he was, as he says, a wolf at the door. “I was hunkered down in my house, and I felt like even going outside was a risk, at the beginning,” he says.
He transferred all of his anxiety and fear into a series of sculptures that resemble altarpieces — or tabernacles, if you were also raised Catholic. Hard Times (wolves at the door) shows the facade of a house, gouged, painted with red, and then gilded, to become something holy. Palladian Dreams references the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose style, inspired by ancient Greek and Roman temples, became popular in 17th century Europe. In Michael’s sculpture, three arches, painted red, lead to a gilded beyond.
Despite the challenges — a show in which Michael’s work was scheduled to appear was cancelled at the beginning of March, and the classes he teaches at William Paterson University were moved online — this past year has been a fruitful one. At the end of the year, it was announced that Monica King Gallery would represent Michael’s work going forward. And the show that was cancelled in March, at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, New Jersey, will open instead in 2021. If you are in the tristate area, please go see it, for me.