Fact and Fantasy Converge in the Art of Steven Pestana

In his second solo show at GRIN gallery, recent RISD grad Steven Pestana takes a close look at the human desire to understand the vast universe that surrounds us. The show’s title, “Geometer,” which literally means “measurer of the Earth,” comes through in sculptures, prints, and etchings that draw inspiration from a range of fields, from anthropology and archaeology, to mythology and metaphysics.

  • Installation view of “Steven Pestana: Geometer,” 2015. Courtesy of GRIN and the artist.

    Installation view of “Steven Pestana: Geometer,” 2015. Courtesy of GRIN and the artist.

Pestana approaches the measure of the world as both scientific and aesthetic, objective and subjective. “Just as we might gauge length with a ruler, we measure human experiences, such as emotions, through concepts and degrees,” he told Artsy. “We describe situations as ‘perfect’ or ‘beautiful’ with no quantifiable way to understand what this means.” With “Geometer,” he attempts to bridge this gap, providing us with tools to adequately capture and process this duality. 

  • Installation view of “Steven Pestana: Geometer,” 2015. Courtesy of GRIN and the artist.

    Installation view of “Steven Pestana: Geometer,” 2015. Courtesy of GRIN and the artist.

At the center of the exhibition is a sculptural installation titled Geometer (2015), consisting of a hollow, lifesize headless cast figure lined with gold. He kneels on one knee with his hand on a giant crystal-like rock, while in his other hand he clutches a pole topped with a framed glass etching of a what looks like a celestial observatory. Resembling a lone explorer, or perhaps an astronaut planting a flag on the moon, the figure could also be a self-portrait of the artist, serving to remind us of the blurry relationship between discovery and creativity, fact and fantasy. Pestana questions the possibility of ever really knowing our world if human observation and knowledge is limited by the methods we’ve created to study it. “Our tools—systems and devices of measurement, for example—circumscribe our horizons of thought,” he explained.

Pestana has constructed several “tools” of his own, incorporating historic styles and motifs into what he calls “speculative reimaginings.” The sculpture True North, for instance, consists of a lathe-turned, a richly stained wood spindle whose Renaissance-style antiquity belies its contemporary invention. A row of steel cables fans out from the wood post, suggesting a tool for nautical or cosmological exploration. In the delicate, sculptural “Archæometric Reckoners” series, meanwhile, Pestana combines knotting techniques that Incan tribes and ancient Egyptians used to record tribal life and land measurements, respectively.

Pestana has a knack for tapping into the confluence of science, art, and technology. In “Summa Magisterii: Prismatic,” a series of bichromate and letterpress prints, the artist juxtaposes snippets from historian Aby Warburg’s 1939 lecture on the historic use of serpent imagery with excerpts from various poems throughout the ages. He illustrates each text pairing with an image of his sculpture, Summa Magisterii (2015). Also on view in the show, the sculpture is an abstract construction of tree branches wrapped with twine, burlap, and gold leaf emerging like arms from what looks like a steel rib cage. The work’s title translates as “the highest teaching.” Heavily laden with themes of “human aspiration towards the heavens,” Pestana said, the prints recall the inherent danger in such pursuits.

Pestana’s investigation of the cosmos is at once universal and deeply personal. With this show, he explained, he hopes to “inspire unexpected imaginative possibilities in viewers.”

—Kate Haveles

Geometer” is on view at GRIN, Providence, Oct. 15–Nov. 14, 2015.

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