Since the late 1960s, Charles Fahlen has been using humble materials to make enigmatic sculptures that explore personal memory and cultural myths while reflecting on the sculptural process and the objecthood of things.
He came of age in the post-minimalist era with artists like Eva Hesse, Scott Burton and Richard Tuttle, and began his career making works that allude primarily to their own strange forms and unusual materials. A Fahlen sculpture might resemble the observation tower in a chicken coop and it would probably be made from stuff you could get at the hardware store: chicken wire, MDF, some kind of resin. It could be droll like the 1975 wall-mounted Cracker Jack, an accordian-shaped folder with five monochromatic panels each made of a different material and named after that nostlagic bit of americana with the disappointing prize inside. Or it could play with scale and seem more like low-key pop art: the 1988 Dirty Devil is a 56-inch high aluminum form loosely based on the telescoping camping cup and named after the desert river that Fahlen visited on childhood family trips.
The democratization of materials in Fahlen’s work is both a departure from the glamour and refinement of minimalism, and a natural response to his own environment, the Philadelphia inner city, where he renovated old houses while at Moore College of Art and Design, where he taught for more than 30 years. Fahlen likes to collect stuff and there is always the air of an archive in his work, where memories, materials, places and ideas connect regardless of how detached they seem. A 1972 untitled work of resin and wood resembles both a fibrous pyramid and a goofy lampshade, juxtaposing the mystery and gravitas of ancient Egypt with the utility and banality of a home design store. The 1991 Half Dome, a playful deconstruction of the Yosemite monument, reminds one more of a kitchen-counter salesman’s sampler than the natural cathedral Fahlen visited during summers as a child.
In his more recent work, done since Fahlen returned to his birthplace in San Francisco, he seems to have made off with the plumbing from Duchamp’s urinal and reused the brass rod, steel chain and cast epoxy bills to make sculptures that resemble toy models of planetary constellations. These geometric wall constructions flatten three dimensional space into two, and sag with an existential shrug where a computer model would map with Newtonian precision. In the 2007 Prophecies of More, Fahlen complicates the notion of the artist as seer with a pun on his own creative fecundity. This geoemetric jangle of hardware, primary color and resin dangles from the wall like the neckpiece from an Aztec templemaster whose jeweler was schooled at the Bauhaus and shops at Home Depot. In place of an utopian paradise of aesthetic laws, Fahlen gives us the universe in a toolbox. The artist is no longer the apollonian magician loaned to us for a time from Mount Olympus, he’s just a resourceful guy who shows up at the door with high spirits and a bottomless well of keen tactics and problem solving devices who will impishly cobble together a universe for you with whatever’s ready to hand.
Fahlen’s work is in many public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, NY, The Pennsylvania Museum of Art, PA, The Albright Knox Museum, Buffalo, NY and the Oakland Museum, CA. He has received NEA and Fullbright grants and many commissions public and private. Falhlen has had 19 solo exhibitions, including shows at Richard Feigen Gallery, NY, Droll/Kolbert Gallery, NY, Stefanotti Gallery, NY, Lawrence Oliver Gallery, PA, Marian Locks Gallery, PA and a 1991 installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.