Ben Jackel: Burgonet with Buffe, 2013, stoneware and beeswax, 21 by 13½ by 24 inches; at L.A. Louver.

Physical might converges with formal presence and technical prowess in Jackel’s elegant, richly complicated work. A giant pair of brass knuckles greeted visitors just outside the entrance to “American Imperium,” which was, indeed, about power, but not only brute force. The brass knuckles are actually made of bronze, bearing a handsome, matte-black patina, and they span nearly six feet across. Exaggerating the scale of the weapon and altering its material, Jackel sidelines function in deference to distilled, commanding form. The four finger-holes present as huge, perversely cheery loops and, as in many of Jackel’s works, a sly anthropomorphism also comes into play: the piece (based on a pair of World War II-era brass knuckles) can read as a goofily smiling face.

Initially provoked by both the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, Jackel has for nearly a decade engaged with the technology of weaponry and bodily protection as well as rescue, specifically emergency equipment, such as hydrants and hoses. He works in wood, bronze and stoneware, ever capitalizing on the relationship—often one of slippage—between the native material of an object and his divergent sculpted response. He has rendered fire-quenching hydrants in clay fixed by fire. He has used an ax to hew an ax, creating a gorgeous, formidable wooden object with a prowlike blade as tall as a human, its rugged surface rubbed with graphite to draw out the grain. 

Jackel’s studies under the versatile ceramic artist Adrian Saxe as well as his fabrication work for Charles Ray enhanced his extraordinary fluency with materials, including the capacity for deft masquerade. Stoneware, deep brown and burnished with beeswax, takes on qualities of pitted, scratched metal, for instance, in his series of five oversize jousting and battle helmets, modeled on versions from the Renaissance. They straddle the antiquated and the futuristic. One, with a sweeping back fin and ribbed collar, evokes conquistadors, and another Darth Vader, its face a neat wedge striated with horizontal ventilation slits that give the shield a sense of momentum, turning its wearer into a living missile. These helmets represent protective costumes, but in truth are heads of clay—fragile, vulnerable shells.

Jackel’s work hinges on both exactitude and transformation; he extrapolates likeness to the point of abstraction. For Pauldron Vambrace (2015), he scales up, in stoneware, pieces of armor designed for the shoulder and arm, and mounts them on the wall, where the bulbous tops, pointed elbows and armadillo plates look like odd biological specimens, or cousins to Peter Shelton’s quirky lobed sculptures. He suspends three graphite-coated mahogany drones at eye level, where they seem to slice the air with frightening grace. Jackel meets intense craft with intense craft, echoing the formal ingenuity of a device, weapon or tool with his own exquisite handwork. Homage prevails throughout, but is often shadowed by horror. The beauty here doesn’t mask brutality, but contains it. Power, as Jackel makes breathtakingly clear, swings every which way, at once.