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Scott Bye's Wooden "Turbine" at Big Orbit

An Artist's Pallets

Ever since Robert Rauschenberg at least artists have been collecting sculptural materials from garbage heaps and scrap piles (Rauschenberg’s iconic image—a kind of portrait of the artist as trash omnivore—of the goat in the city dump chomping rags and tin cans).

Nobody does gleaning and recycling—repurposing is the artspeak vogue term—more assiduously and determinedly than sculptor Scott Bye, whose new piece entitled Turbine on display at Big Orbit gallery is constructed entirely of pallet tops, slightly less elaborate versions of standard wood construction pallet bases used in assembling large shipping bundles. (In this case, transoceanic shipping bundles, from China. The pallet tops are marked with little Chinese character stamp seals, much like the stamps seen on ancient Chinese paintings and drawings.)

The piece is monumental and quite magnificent. The literally hundreds of pallet top units are reconstructed more or less shingle style into vast swirl and spiral forms that twist and turn in one flow direction, then turn and twist back the other way, but always smoothly, gracefully, elegantly, in the mainstream surge and in the change of direction.

The rough-cut lumber of the pallet tops evokes this area’s industrial past. And the turbine idea evokes Niagara Falls and the power that made the industry possible. Turbines don’t change direction, but what they do is transform linear motion, energy—the rushing waters of the Niagara River at the falls—into rotary motion, that is then used to drive generators that produce electricity. Electricity that was first produced at Niagara Falls in the novel form called alternating current. Which preposterously does change direction. Allowing—given a genius like Nikola Tesla to figure this all out—efficient and economical power transmission over a distance. Enabling Buffalo industry.

Before industry though, Buffalo’s original economic advantage was as a transportation and transshipment center. From its location at the easternmost end of the navigable Great Lakes. And thereupon western terminus of a canal that connected to the Atlantic seaboard. The China connection brings this local historical connection up to date, for better or worse. It’s a global economy now. And if we’re lucky, we get the throw-away pallet tops. The task—as always—is to figure out what to make of what we get.

But the aesthetically crucial and dominant matter of change in this piece relates to change as transformation of the overall artwork from static to dynamic. (What sculptors have forever tried to achieve—and sometimes did achieve, sometimes do achieve—from the sculptor of the horse on the Parthenon to the Russian Constructivists to the Futurists and Cubists and beyond. What all art genres try to achieve, but perhaps most noticeably, in the success or the failure, sculpture.) The change of inert materials into living and breathing. This piece lives and breathes.

When Scott Bye isn’t working on the Turbine piece—this is past tense now that the piece is completed, which took five full work days and well into night hours, with help, to construct and install at Big Orbit—he can be found working on the art barge construction project in the main gallery of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, where he is head foreman directing the labors of eight other partner artist/constructors. The art barge is a multi-year project, and multi-barge. The in-gallery barge is scheduled to be completed later this summer. (Gallery patrons are encouraged to check out the work in progress. Part of the idea of the project is to let patrons in on ordinarily unseen art exhibit creation and curatorial processes.) The project should then continue next summer with an actual barge with art canal trip across New York State, destination New York City.

The Big Orbit exhibit continues through September 1.

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