Stumbling Upon Roadside Art in Braintree
The hulking metal of the Braintree road crew’s snowplows made for a ready-made work of art inside the photographer’s lens. (Herald File / Bob Eddy) Driving about Vermont, we have all seen large pieces of agricultural or road working equipment sitting by the side of the road or in the corner of a field. Usually, in passing we unconsciously associate and name these machines at rest by their working function. We see a tedder, a tractor, a combine, a plow, a grader, a truck.
Have you ever seen a piece of old machinery parked or mothballed at the edge of a field and thought it beautiful? Perhaps it was an old hay rake, its many curved and rusting tines casting sharp shadows upon snow.
I’ve seen pieces of ancient machinery placed in gardens; large wooden-spoked wagon wheels, their rusting iron rims, an old horse-pulled plow. Are these pieces still machinery when they’ve been repurposed as sculpture? Has a scythe ceased to be a scythe, when its blade is removed and welded to wrenches and coal chisels to fabricate the form of a bird?
This is playful philosophical inquiry as old as Plato’s contemplation of a chair. Is there an ideal form of “chair” from which all chairs are derived? If a chair is too fragile to be sat upon, is it still a chair? If, instead of being used at the dining table, it is painted funky colors and placed in the garden as a makeshift artsy trellis for cucumber vines, has it ceased being a chair? What constitutes “chairness?” Is it form or function, or perhaps both? Marcel Duchamp revolutionized art at the beginning of the last century by taking common utilitarian objects, separating them from their function, placing them on pedestals and proclaiming them art. Some of his “ready-mades,” as he called them, were a repurposed bottle rack, a bicycle wheel, and a urinal.
Is It Art?
One summer day many years ago, traveling north on Route 12A, my attention was grabbed by the scene photographed here. Three large plows had been lined up next to a light blue metal building.
I doubt the Braintree town crew was thinking about an “artistic arrangement” as they dropped these plows from their trucks around Town Meeting Day, storing them until needed for the next snowstorm, two weeks or seven months away. Passing by in July, however, they seemed less like plows than massive sculptural forms, and my intent was to convey that sense of them in this image.
Perhaps, when you first look at this photograph you immediately see three plows. If, however, you see only plows, then the image falls short of my hope for it.
Like Duchamp, with this image I have embraced these not simply as plows stored for summer, but as a “ready-made” sculpture.
My photograph seeks to separate the forms from recognizable background elements. There are no trucks, no workmen. The metal siding disappears into whiteness behind, and I have dodged the foreground to keep the graveled drive from becoming too dominant.
Separated now from their surrounding environment, we see the repeated shape of a plow. A wideangle lens dramatizes the increase in size as the plows get nearer. Do you sense movement from left to right? Likely this is because we have experienced plows passing in the street. Our memory is of them coming closer, increasing in size and sound, and then they are gone. The artist, Arthur Dove, painted large round abstract shapes to convey the sense of a foghorn sounding in the night. These shapes describe, abstractly, the increasing sound of an approaching plow. Are these three plows, or one plow breaking into the space three times as it moves, much like Duchamp’s overlapping cubist forms in “Nude Descending a Staircase?”
Have I succeeded in conveying the sense of these plows as sculpture? Well, that is for you to decide. Art, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
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