tales of power, corruption, art, and industry, cast in bronze by Studio Job
Conceived in 2006, Robber Baron is an important suite of five cast-bronze furnishings, consisting of a Cabinet, Mantel Clock, Table, Standing Lamp, and Jewel Safe, each offered in a limited edition of five.
Magnificent in scale, exceptionally finely modeled, detailed, and cast, with precision mechanical movements where required, incorporating deeply carved iconographic reliefs, with areas highly polished, gilded, or patinated, these works are guild-like in their master craftsmanship.
Their mirror finish reflecting the outrageous excesses of America’s 19th century tycoons and Russia’s new oligarchs, these surreal, highly-expressive furnishings, each a complex composition of multiple visual elements depicting a narrative – much like a cathedral’s stained glass windows or its majestic bronze front doors – represent an interior belonging to a powerful industrial leader or his heirs. With clouds of pollution belching from towering smoke stacks, and missiles, falcons, gas masks, warplanes, and wrenches adorning golden surfaces, Robber Baron celebrates and shames both Art and Industry.
A polished bronze cabinet with black patinated “bomb crater” and gilded reliefs, inspired by a 17th century armoire by André-Charles Boulle, in the Wallace Collection, London. The heavy doors are fully functional because of a ball bearing mechanism.
A patined bronze ‘safe’ with a ‘Jack-in-the-Box’ popping up out of the craggy top. The polished bronze head is colored with oil-based pigments, highlighting the collar, nose and other features. The lock mechanism is operated by turning the clown’s nose, and the door hinge employs a ball bearing mechanism.
A patinated bronze pedestal clock supported by gilded oil barrels atop a model of the Florentine Galleria degli Uffizi, with Robber Baron reliefs. The dial of the clock is inspired by London’s Big Ben, circled by a futile railway running endless circles on a rocky land- scape. The clock face can be shut with cast bronze stable doors. On top of the clock sits a Neo-Classical ‘dream house’, partially shrouded by a cloud.
A patinated bronze “factory”, whose architecture is derived from interpretations of various early 20th century works, including the AEG factory of Peter Behrens and the Battersea Power Station in London. The four chimneys produce a “polluted cloud” of polished bronze, which becomes the open-work tabletop.
by Sue-an van der Zijpp
Of course the desire of the rich to surround themselves with art and other exclusive objects is hardly new. The phenomenon always manages to return in a new form, as was demonstrated by Robber Baron (2007), a ground-breaking and spectacular series of five bronze furnishings, of course produced in a limited edition. The series consisted of a cabinet, a mantle clock, a safe, a table and a standing lamp, and was first exhibited at Moss Gallery in New York, subtitled Tales of power, corruption, art, and industry. Although these furnishings can in fact be put to use, they are not very practical. They weigh hundreds of pounds each, and are slightly too small to be easily used, about a quarter smaller than normal size. As could be expected from Studio Job, these too are profusely decorated, with countless figurative parts, in sometimes bizarre combinations. There is also an unbelievably high degree of finish, alternating patinated, polished and gilded bronze. The series as a whole is something well worth spending a good while looking at, and the ensemble easily invites contemplation.
The term “robber baron” originally referred to twelfth and thirteenth-century German feudal lords who demanded illegal tolls from passing vessels on the Rhine. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the term came back into fashion in the United States, used to describe the extremely wealthy businessmen and industrialists who amassed tremendous fortunes and gained extensive power by ruthlessly dominating their respective arenas. Famous robber barons included Rockefeller, Carnegie and Frick. Although some would also present themselves as benefactors, they were well known for enjoying the public display of their wealth through any manner of pomp and circumstance.
The spending power of the robber barons bears a strong resemblance to that of today’s nouveau riche, such as Arabs and Russians grown wealthy thanks to oil, the internet entrepreneurs, property developers and movie stars. The connecting factor is their urge to impress their public and set themselves apart, for instance by purchasing luxury objects. Besides clothes, yachts, cars, jewellery and wines, ornamental objects for home display have always been popular. The economist Thorstein Veblen called this phenomenon “conspicuous consumption” in his widely renowned The Theory of the Leisure Class from 1899, which to this day is regarded as one of the most articulate assaults on unchecked consumerism.
This “conspicuousness” or “attention-getting” manner of consumption also holds the implication of “waste” according to Veblen: It is something that must be especially noticed by others.13 Waste in this instance has to do with having goods produced that are overly luxurious, expensive, and sometimes totally unnecessary, in materials which often are ludicrous, and that obviously have cost a great deal of time, effort and artisanship to create. They must reflect the spending power of the owner and provide proof of his superiority. All these elements are present in Robber Baron. Bronze as material for furnishings is a prime example of waste. Also overtly costly is the gilding of the reliefs, as well as the many hours invested by both the designers and the dedicated and highly trained craftsmen who made it, more exclusive by far in these days of highly automated mass production.
Robber Baron contains both figurative references to the sources of wealth of these magnates – banking, railways, oil, industry – and references to historical and architectural manifestations of “power,” such as the Parthenon, St. Peter’s dome, the Empire State Building, Battersea Power Station, and Peter Behrens’s AEG factory. This visual narrative is not just about the past, but also about the future, and about the downside of wealth and power. Studio Job leaves little to the imagination in that regard. The bas-reliefs carry images of billowing smokestacks, gas masks, bombs, the nuclear energy symbol, tanks, cannons, warplanes, and a circular saw blade, like a wheel of life, symbolizing the cycle of existence, the eternal return of the same.
This ambiguity makes the work both a celebration and a parody of wealth and “good taste.” And it is this in particular – the combination of beauty and vitriolic humor – that makes Robber Baron such a dazzling masterpiece. The furnishings reveal the underlying mechanism of commercialization: the need to distinguish oneself. However, it is not just an ironic commentary or a clichéd critique of “today’s soulless consumerism,” or the “commercialization of art.” The artistic genius of Robber Baron lies in the fact that the work and its voracious buyers are every bit as much part of this trend too. This makes the bronzes a work equally ingenious as complex, one that reflects the shortcomings of the day and forces the viewer to take a stance.