Photo by Lynn Baiori
'Us and Them #2' (work in progress) by Frank Plant
Frank Plant – Man of Steel
In the entrance to Frank Plant’s apartment are diminutive sculptures, easily overlooked and overshadowed by striking, larger pieces hanging on the walls deeper inside. One of these smaller models represents a figure of the pope, with a photographed head of Stevie Wonder. “Stevie for pope,” says the artist, “and the world would be a better place.” Idealism is the force behind Plant’s work, although I’m doubtful he would express it that way. The artist is reserved, but with a warm, inviting smile. A poet working primarily with steel to create art that immediately penetrates the viewer with its energy and raw self-exploration, eliminating the line between you and the image, coaxing you out of the role of passive observer and tempting you to respond.
I follow him to his studio where a paper pattern hangs on the wall, its steel frame beginning to take shape. The final image will be a chess board consisting of two 350cm x 150cm sets of human figures, a group portrait entitled Us and Them #2. Through it, Plant is continuing his exploration of relationships within societies, the rivalries, identities and strategies we develop as individuals within a group, and as groups within a larger society. He chose chess as a metaphor, saying you can gain insight into a person’s character by observing how they play the game.
I ask him to explain the technique he uses to build the large-scale figures. For Us and Them #2, after the initial idea, he made a computerised vector image from photographs of friends and acquaintances, and created a pattern to follow as he cuts and shapes the steel, somewhat like a dressmaker uses a pattern to cut cloth. I ask why he chooses to work with such a difficult material. He tells me that he likes it for its permanance. But although steel is tough, you need to be gentle with it; push too hard and you might bend, burn or damage it. “You can also hurt yourself,” he says. The evidence is a bandaged left hand, injured by the blade of a cutting disk.
Plant’s work with steel developed while he was living in Amsterdam. He began by making a large coffee cup and saucer for his friends’ café. From there, he moved from two to three dimensional figures, mixed media pieces, interactive sculptures.“You develop a relationship with the material; the more you work with it, the more intimate the relationship is, and the more that comes from it,” he says.
His work has been shown in galleries throughout Europe and is identified by its intricate beauty as well as for the strength of its social observation. He makes use of humour and tragedy, displays our vulnerabilities as well as our capacities for violence, our instinct for survival, our human passivity and aggression. Yet Plant doesn’t hold himself above criticism. In The Artist Takes a Fall, the artist and his work are examined as a vehicle of propaganda, and we are asked to think critically rather than passively accept a message, regardless of the source.
We move to Frank’s work table where he demonstrates welding a piece of steel. On hand is a cutting disk, a sanding disk and a TIG welder. He puts on a welder’s mask to protect his eyes from the UV ray emitted by the spark of gas and electricity, and warns me not to look directly at the ray as I take the picture. He demonstrates again; this time I also wear a mask. As the spark ignites, a burst of light shines through the protective glass, like a star exploding. For an instant, the shape of a man is illuminated as he forges a narrative of our complex human experience.