Art in America, January 1987, Vol. 75, N° 1, p. 130
by Wade Saunders & Anne Rochette —
Modern sculpture partakes more of the factory than the farm, and of culture more often than nature. Materials are generally regarded as bearers of information, rather than as substances in themselves, and sculptors have come to treat them a bit casually, as inanimate stuff. But the way Wolfgang Laib gathers and handles his materials immediately locates his work in nature, even though the fragility of the pieces necessitates that they be shown in interior spaces.
Coming into the gallery we first encountered two roughly three-inch-high mountains of dense golden color; made of piled-up hazelnut pollen, they appear ready to diffuse at the first touch. Pollen has been one of Laib’s principal materials since 1977, and the obsessional seasonal process of gathering it still reverberates in the sculptures. When he piles it into cones whose forms are determined by gravity, however, Laib contradicts its lightness and insubstantiality.
In an adjoining room Laib sifted hazelnut pollen into a seven-foot square with soft edges. This luminescent yellow carpet seemed to float above the floor, as a Rothko rectangle appears to float in front of the canvas. But in its velvety, organic dispersion, pollen adds a sheer physical sensuality to the experience of intense color given by dry pigment.
In Rice Meals for a Stone uncooked rice has been piled up in 36 deep brass Indian plates ceremonially aligned in rows of 14 and 22 in front of a dark lichen-covered stone. The plates are commonly used for serving food as well as for sacred offerings; their alignment here recalls long monastic tables set for a communal meal. Here foodstuff is the basis of a ritual, a socially oriented ordering and accounting.
The newest pieces shown, both titled Rice House, are less successful. Both are made of sheet metal nailed over a small building-like wooden form. Rice is piled up against the walls of the buildings (the larger piece includes five bars of sealing wax placed a few inches away from the rice) suggesting that it is spilling forth from within. In fact it isn’t. The visual associations with granaries, temples and reliquaries are obvious, but the form, scale and construction keep the sculptures comfortably within the realm of the art object, diminishing somewhat their emotional impact.
The aura of purity and naturalness that surrounds Laib’s work is reinforced by his biography (he studied to become a doctor; he lives secluded in a Bavarian forest), but belies the actual intelligence behind his sculpture. Laib is very much in the lineage of Joseph Beuys and Dieter Rot. His pollen pieces in particular achieve an astounding formal beauty while positing a harmonious relation between art-making and the natural world.