Forging ahead with sculptor Tom Joyce
Words Nick Scott
Portraits Christopher Sturman
From the monumental to the microscopic, American artist and iron forger Tom Joyce has melted, smelted and hammered a reputation for dismantling the barriers between art and science. In these previously unpublished photos, he shows us through the making process and takes us behind the scenes of his new exhibition…
For Tom Joyce, iron isn’t simply the raw material with which he creates his work: it is also the stuff of life. ‘Iron comes from out in the universe, it’s at the Earth’s core and within its mantle, it’s in our bodies and coursing through our veins,’ he enthuses. His relationship to this most fundamental of elements is explored in his largest solo exhibition to date: Everything At Hand, which runs at the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Sante Fe until 31 December, featuring vast pieces weighing up to 21 tons made from cast iron and forged steel, as well as metal-themed multimedia installations. Described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘a love letter to abstract shape, paying homage to forebears dating back to Brancusi’, the show acts as a retrospective of his entire career to date.
‘The title of the exhibition, Everything at Hand, references that first hammer placed in the palm of my hand when I was 14 – which in theory continues to shape the work 45 years later,’ he says. ‘The Tank Garage space at CCA was once a storage and maintenance facility for military tanks, so it had most of the infrastructure necessary to support heavy objects without any problems. The exhibition features over 225,000 pounds of forged high-carbon and stainless steel sculpture. It allowed me the freedom to build new spaces, create new work and penetrate walls to mount sculptures unsuitable for temporary installations in commercial gallery venues.’
These include Tenet – a title derived from the Latin tenere, ‘to hold’ – for which Joyce 3D-printed working tools from his workshop in clear polycarbonate: in a darkened room, they hanging upside-down, LED-lit from within. Another, titled Tc, (Curie Point), is an inverted studio installation in which obsolete blacksmith’s paraphernalia – tools, jigs, fixtures, artefacts, working drawings, patterns, clay models, prototypes, mementos from mentors long deceased, books, knick-knacks, signage – also hang upside-down from the ceiling.
It was while at his European studio in Belgium that the idea for Joyce’s show came to him. ‘What about devoting a section of the studio space to tools I no longer use, but were at one time critical elements in the production of the work, and turned the whole thing on its head?’ he says. ‘Imagine a child looking between their legs and seeing the ceiling upside down for the first time – all those things that used to be easily at hand being just out of reach – and seeing an entirely new world even though it’s the same environment?’
This piece – which became Tc, (Curie Point) – provides, in Joyce’s words, ‘a foundational metaphor for the exhibition’. The name is derived from the temperature blacksmiths quench forged iron tools to harden them before tempering. ‘When steel, at 1417˚ Fahrenheit (770˚ Celsius), is cooled rapidly in water, atoms violently contract and realign, becoming extremely hard and brittle. The atomic spaciousness found at the ‘Curie Point’ temperature – where steel loses its magnetism, where attraction and repulsion flux, where softness and hardness converge, where creation and destruction are possible – this is where the material processes and ideas I tend to work with emerge.’