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It would be slightly excruciating to encounter one of Hervé Wahlen's enigmatic copper sculptures at, say, The Museum of Modern Art or any other institution where Do Not Touch is the rule. Wahlen takes an intensely hands-on approach to his work and expects others to do the same, encouraging his audience to touch and manipulate the sleek, multifaceted creations that he painstakingly crafts in his Paris workshop. "My initial contact with copper," the 43-year-old Algerian-born artist recalls, "drew me to touch and handle the substance directly with my hands, and I attempt to transfer this emotion by creating sculptures that invite direct contact." For Wahlen, direct contact with copper takes the form of dinanderie, a copper-working method perfected by medieval artisans in the Belgian manufacturing center of Dinant. The technique involves hammering, firing, and shaping a sheet of copper into a fluid three-dimensional object: a cauldron, a kettle, a pot. Shortly after Wahlen started working with copper in 1981, he began to explore this labor-intensive craft. But it wasn't until many years later—after stints with wood, stone, and iron—that Wahlen returned to dinanderie in earnest, bringing it into the realm of fine art (his work can now be found in the Fond National d'Art Contemporain in Paris) and into a new millennium.
The result is an array of supple organic forms that are sumptuously patinated and buffed with beeswax and which hold secrets within. Ouverture, for example, is a seductively simple piece that resembles an amber-colored dinosaur egg, but when opened it reveals an intricately hammered-out interior finished in gold leaf and glowing with honeycomb brilliance. The sloping, provocative Sweet Line opens on a hinge that allows the piece to assume surprising shapes; like nearly all of Wahlen's work, Sweet Line is weighted with ball bearings that balance it in improbable, gravity-defying positions. The mysteries of balance resonate throughout the artist's sculptures, which articulate a kind of dynamic equilibrium between interior and exterior, enigma and revelation, light and substance, art and craft, and, as Wahlen would have it, between "my wisdom and my folly, my dreams and reality."
Of his working methods, Wahlen says, "Once the general shape is determined, I begin to improvise. I need to factor in technique, surprises, accidents, and overall twists of fate." He accommodates these twists by jumping from piece to piece, rather than by working one sculpture to completion. Such a technique requires, as the artist puts it, both "patience and optimism." (Wahlen, who works without assistance, finishes approximately 20 to 25 pieces a year.) "My years of experimenting," he says, "have resulted in my not panicking but trusting and having faith in the material." Wahlen's fire-tested faith—expressed in these elegant yet elemental sculptures—elevates the art of dinanderie far beyond pots and pans.
Hervé Wahlen's works range from $6,500 to $20,000. Barry Friedman Ltd., 32 East 67th Street; 212-794-8950; fax 212-794-8889.