East City Art Reviews: Squire Broel’s Totemic Structures at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on July 17, 2019
Squire Broel, Totemic Structures, installation view.  Photo by C. Rousseau for East City Art

A small group of standing bronze sculptures by Washington State based artist, Squire Broel, is currently in the outdoor sculpture area at American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.  At significant distances from one another, the sense of loneliness here is striking.  There are only seven of these structures, in a space that could accommodate many more.  They appear as sentinels, standing guard in this barren place, with its high tan concrete walls and ground.  In the bright sun with angled shadows from the building, totems in the American desert may come to mind, although the aesthetic seems more universal, potentially recalling various primitive or prehistoric sources.  This sense, that the works have roots in different ancient world cultures, is, in part, the result of their inspiration in nature, as in standing trees or plants.  Yet, in this installation, the spaces between them are energized by their placement, like human dancers in a choreographed moment.

Broel was a dancer.  In that capacity he became familiar with the idea of the body standing straight, of its occupying space and relating to other bodies standing nearby.  In the choreography of William Forsythe, for example, dancers “mirror” one another in stillness and movement.  Broel’s dance experience led him to experiment with standing works, reflecting his knowledge of the kind of modern choreography that is evoked in this installation.  Modern sculpture since Robert Morris’ first exhibitions in the 1960’s has been concerned with the encounter of the body of the viewer with the sculpted form.  Morris used mirrored cubes on a pristine wooden floor to emphasize the point.  But with those minimalist works, that was pretty much the whole experience.  Broel’s works are far more evocative and inviting.  Like dancers, they give you their fronts and their backs.  Their sides nearly disappear; a liminal moment between the front and the back.   This oscillation between the totemic aspect and the human reference creates an intriguing, somewhat mysterious atmosphere, especially in mid-day when the sunlight is bright and there aren’t many other visitors occupying the space.

Squire Broel, Totemic Structures, installation view.  Photo by C. Rousseau for East City Art

The development of these works is documented in an interesting collection of small three dimensional pieces of different kinds in a vitrine inside the lounge area in front of the doors to the outdoor sculpture space.  The pointed oval shape first appears in these small works, horizontally, eventually coalescing into an eye.  The eye, singled out this way, alludes to many things: the eye of God, the eye of Horus, talismans against the evil eye in many cultures, and so on.  Eventually, the shape became vertical, and was elevated onto a stalk or spear-like support, as in one of these small works titled Greek Bones.  From this came the idea of enlarging the form into tall bronzes—an ancient medium and one that enabled the artist to cast actual river rocks and branches that are parts of the works now on exhibit.  These additions are made by taking a direct mold from the natural form and then finishing the surfaces of the bronze with expertly applied patinas that mimic the original materials and give them surfaces that are tactile and intricate.   These additions in some of the works support the feeling of mystical presence about these simple forms; like votives at some ancient sacred point.  Or, as a title like Guardian of the Rocks might suggest, they might be structures with apotropaic intent.

Squire Broel, Guardian of the Rocks, 2019, cast bronze with patina.  Photo by Greg Staley.


Squire Broel,  The Rift, detail, 2015, cast bronze with patina. Photo by C. Rousseau for East City Art.

The primitive simplicity of these works, and the way they evoke many forms of spirituality and ancient culture, while also connoting modernist sculpture and dance choreography make them visually inviting and intellectually attractive.  They are, as the artist has written, “objects for contemplation”, that will allow viewers to associate them with their own backgrounds and generate their own emotional responses.

Squire Broel: Totemic Structures, American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20016.  www.american.edu/museum