William Corwin: Green Ladder

The Brooklyn Rail | April 2021

By Charlotte Kent PhD

Ladders appear across spiritual traditions linking the lower and upper, the earthly and material with the everlasting and transcendent. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the ladder allows a glimpse of the gods. In Shinto, Amaterasu’s perfection causes her to depart the earthly realm by the ladder of heaven. The Hebrew word sullam gets translated as scala in the Vulgate, with Jacob’s ladder as the best-known example. Medieval mystics made much of ladders: Christ, the cross, monasteries, even human life are ladders to Heaven. The mi’raj of Mohammed occurs by ladder, or perhaps staircase. The Pueblo Indians reference a ladder that leads to the rainbow, which was also occasionally depicted as a ladder, the road travelled by the dead. Such an ascension symbol, for the philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade, signifies “a transcending of the human and a penetration into higher cosmic levels.”

All this seems so appropriate for William Corwin’s latest body of work, since he has a longstanding interest in archeology and thus ancient ways of thinking and seeing. Across all these myths, the ladder is by necessity a great extension beyond the human realm, reaching up and above and beyond. So, it is with great amusement that one encounters the ladders at Geary Contemporary that reach barely a couple feet. Given ladders’ common association with trees, one might expect these to be made of wood, a material that Corwin has used to good effect in the past. Instead, these are made of either plaster or aluminum, excepting Ladder with Broken Tread that is made of bronze (all works 2020).

Knowing that the Mithraic Mysteries speak of an initiation ladder made of seven rungs, each a different metal, is no reason for an overwrought interpretive scheme. The materials stand for themselves beautifully. The bronze and aluminum works are richly tactile; his tales from the foundry well worth hearing. Plaster takes any form and as such has no fixed presence. It is defined by its surface. Mixed with sand or soil, the grittiness recalls archeological sites and museological artefacts that imply unknown lives. Freestanding Ladder is two feet tall and hung on a wall, a delicate deflection at attempts to harness meaning.

Western philosophy largely rejects humor as irresponsible, irrational, and so insufficiently serious, which may contribute to the challenge within the discourse surrounding art and aesthetics to accept wit as the extraordinary quality that it is for our Sisyphean experience. Sculpture’s historical roots in temples impose a legacy of solemnity that may escape in the brash and occasionally crass efforts of Pop, but those largely offer derision rather than levity. In Corwin’s small-scale works, the heavy materials and allusions become light, and we are suddenly lifted out of the morass. Angled Ladder and Angled Ladder (Plaster) lean against the wall, dangerously askew. The horror implicit in their defunct usage is matched by the humor that our truths are slant.

Two works make reference to the human effort to climb each rung of an intellectual, corporate, or metaphysical ladder. Ladder and Hand (plaster) and Ladder and Hand (aluminum) include closed fists impossibly positioned through the side rails. Too large for the structures that could not bear them, they are nevertheless powerful presences. In the context of so many ladders, the hefty fists stuck between and sometimes grasping the spokes in Wheel with Hands make the work a terrifying and ironic statement about labor. Double Ladder is the showstopper in the center of the floor, the largest work at 40 inches. The dark aluminum becomes a finely wrought silver as the second ladder meets and extends past the first. It is superb.

Two watercolors complete the show. You are a Green Ladder depicts a straight ladder to the right of one aslant. Both are green with the title scripted like an accusation on the right side of the paper. The work gives the show its title. But what does it mean? Are green ladders unreliable, sometimes tall and sometimes falling? Why green when all else are the muted tones of plaster, sand, and burnished metals? As the show makes evident, semiotics and iconology are laughable trappings. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think of that master of deductive reasoning (actually, mostly inductive, which goes to show you can’t trust anything): Sherlock Holmes. There is a line taken from an unpublished story by Arthur Conan Doyle that only committed fans who’ve read the apocrypha would recognize; the line is included in “A Study in Pink” from the 2010 Benedict Cumberbatch series: “If brother has green ladder arrest brother.” For Corwin, however, final determination is contraindicated. His sculptures are a finely wrought levity of the effort along the way.