Ben Jackel’s Sculptures Command Attention in New Modern & Contemporary Exhibition

Ben Jackel’s Sculptures Command Attention in New Modern & Contemporary Exhibition

Colorado native Ben Jackel’s behemoth sculpture Pay Attention (in photo above and on view at the Denver Art Museum in Showing Off: Recent Modern & Contemporary Acquisitions) demands viewers’ attention with its giant silhouette.

The medieval weapon on which Jackel modeled the work, called a halberd, also commanded attention, but for different reasons. The halberd consisted of a long wooden pole with an ax blade affixed to one end and was commonly used in central Europe in the 1300s−1500s. Foot soldiers used halberds to knock horsemen from their steeds, and slay them.

While Jackel’s halberd appears menacing—and indeed its weight is dangerous, if not lethal—it is not sinister like its medieval version. Its “blade” is made of wood—the same piece of wood from which Jackel carved the staff; and though Jackel honed the ax meticulously, he did not sharpen it enough to wound.

At over two times the height of its prototype (The average halberd was between five and six feet in length, and Pay Attention stands over 13 feet tall), the sculpture is too large for one man to lift, let alone wield with agility. Jackel also altered the halberd design by blunting the bottom end of the staff so it can sit comfortably on a gallery floor.

Great Bascinet, the large helmet that sits to the left of the halberd, also is not intended to be used. Jackel modeled the work on a steel helmet thought to have belonged to a knight who fought in defense of England during Henry VIII’s reign. (The original is on display in the Arms and Armor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) Like Pay Attention, it is larger than its model. And because Jackel sculpted the bascinet out of clay, it is extremely delicate. Its size and fragility would likely hinder its wearer more than it would protect him.

Weapons are inherently useful. Those that Jackel makes, which range from medieval artillery and gear like halberds and helmets to contemporary tanks and drones, are useless. Jackel prioritizes appearance over utility to aestheticize functional objects. He meticulously plans each sculpture, and works slowly, mostly with his hands, to realize his designs. He alters the scale of the objects he creates, sometimes enlarging and other times shrinking the models’ proportions. The materials he employs—wood, clay, beeswax, and other natural elements—are precious, not durable. The resulting artworks command their viewers’ attention with their precise, delicate form.

Image credit: Man viewing Ben Jackel's Pay Attention (detail), 2012. Pine wood and graphite; 162 x 64 x 11 in. (411.5 x 162.6 x 27.9 cm). Promised gift from Vicki and Kent Logan to the Collection of the Denver Art Museum. © Ben Jackel. Photograph courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

Pay Attention, 2012. Pine wood and graphite; 162 x 64 x 11 in. (411.5 x 162.6 x 27.9 cm). Promised gift from Vicki and Kent Logan to the Collection of the Denver Art Museum. © Ben Jackel.

Zoe Larkins is the curatorial assistant for contemporary art at the DAM. One of her favorite works on view, besides Pay Attention and Telephones, is Agnes Martin's White Rose, which is also on display in Showing Off.