Thursday, February 19, 2015

Martin Puryear's Phrygians @ Matthew Marks

Thanks to Martin Puryear, and his phenomenal inaugural show at Matthew Marks Gallery, I now know what a phrygian cap is. Though, now knowing, I'm embarrassed that it escaped my knowledge previously. How could such an important symbol of liberty, starting during the French Revolution and used throughout the Americas, escape my knowledge until he picked up on the theme and seared it into my brain with twelve brilliant works of art?

I'm not sure how to answer that question, but at least I can now sound sophisticated as I try to find new and interesting ways to use it in every social setting I find myself in. I'm sure my friends and acquaintances will never grow tired of how I work it into conversations; and, in the process, they will surely thank me for continually wax poetic about Martin's thematically grouped work and how I found it to be such an inspiration.
Phrygian (cap in the air)
color softground etching with spitbite aquatint, aquatint, 
and drypoint on Somerset White paper
35" x 28"
limited edition of 50
The entrance featured two limited edition etchings that look like they were part of the planning process for sculptures in the show. They are a smart way to introduce the viewer to the three dimensional work that follows; and a good way to give viewers a glimpse into the process Martin uses to envision his work. 
Untitled (State 2)
color softground etching with drypoint and 
Chine collé on Somerset White paper
35" x 28"
limited edition of 40
Though Martin is best known for the world-class woodworking skills he brings to his sculptures, it is important to see he doesn't limit himself to one medium, technique, or even dimension. With this piece, Shackled, Martin again demonstrates that regardless of what medium used, his work is always thoughtful, visually interesting, and constructed with impeccable craft. In this way, his art, particularly in this show but in general as well, is accessible without being banal.
27 1/2" x 30 5/8" x 8 3/8
Though a piece like Shackled may initially appear to lack subtlety with its obvious reference to slavery, by combining it with the liberty cap and using a beautiful textured surface (on the body) and contrasting smooth surface (on the brace), he adds ambiguity that leaves room for the viewer to create their own interpretation (by the way, I highly recommend checking out the gallery's fantastic images to get a better sense of this, really, these images and their website, with its ability to zoom in on pieces is the best I've seen). It is simultaneously somber and beautiful. 
Up and Over is similar in material but approaches the theme differently. It is more overtly a phrygian but its message is more subtle. What I find most interesting is how heavy the piece is, both in material and emotionally, being an aged rusty-brown and looking neglected/abandoned.
Up and Over
cast ductile iron
18 5/8" x 26 1/2" x 12 3/4
Both of these sculptures seem to emphasize the absence liberty, but in different ways, and really set the stage for the other work in the show.
Up and Over (closeup)
With Cascade Martin is doing something that is diametrically opposed to the cast iron sculptures. Made with Alaskan yellow cedar, it is a large piece, 66 inches high, but virtually weightless, being made with veneer quality sheets. I didn't have my caliper handy at the time so I'm not sure the precise thickness, but the ribbon must be around 1/8th inch. Its light color and vaguely phrygian shape, along with what seems to be an abstraction of an infinity symbol, leaves the impression of a spiritual intent. Consequently, it seems to reference total freedom, being completely unbounded.
Alaskan yellow cedar
66" x 54 3/4" x 17"
There are several amazing things about this piece, many of which one will only appreciate if you work with wood and try to get something so thin to be flat, stable, and connect to itself as this sculpture does; but what I am really fascinated with is how it is hung on the wall. Martin seems to actually make the piece levitate since there is no visible hanging mechanism and any it is difficult to imagine how it is done. I also love how Martin adds a subtle complexity by slowly changing the width of the ribbon so that the change is only apparent where there is overlap.
Cascade (second view)
Phrygian Spirit is similar to Cascade in material and technique, but it is more overtly spiritual with its title.
Phrygian Spirit
Alaskan yellow cedar, holly, ebony, leather, 
string, milk paint
58 3/8" x 74 3/4" x 15 3/4"
It also more complex with plenty of overtly symbolic elements open to interpretation -- a black ebony ball hanging in mid-air from a blood-red-capped-pure-white holly "drum stick(?)"; a pale, weightless phrygian hanging magically against the wall; a beige cone (why a cone?) painted pure white at its base.
Phrygian Spirit (second view)
I like how the outline of the phrygian is completed with the hanging string of the black sphere.
Phrygian Spirit (first closeup)
Phrygian Spirit (second closeup)
Notice the cone isn't made with clear white holly like the "drum stick" at the other end of the piece, but rather beige Alaskan yellow cedar.

Perhaps Martin has a literal interpretation, and perhaps he had very clear intentions about the symbolism but, in addition to being a beautiful piece, it is beautiful how he leaves just enough symbolism to get the viewer thinking, but not so much that he gives any clear answers either.
Phrygian Spirit (third closeup)
With Phrygian Plot, Martin has taken a grid of black and white squares and laid them over an outline of the cap.
Phrygian Plot
Inlaid holly and black dyed veneer
60" x 74" x 4"
There is an interesting, and confusing, complexity that arises by placing a grid over the outline because of the irregular shapes created, obscuring its underlying simplicity.
Phrygian Plot (second view)
Like many of the pieces in the show, Phrygian Plot toys with the edge of minimalism in being simple in form and concept, but its execution and visual arrangement are anything but simple. For example, at the top there is a little band of black, and slivers of white on either side of it. That little detail can easily be overlooked but that is also why it is my favorite part of the piece -- I find it both daring in its execution and mysterious in its existence.
Phrygian Plot (first closeup)
Faux Vitrine probably the most visually complex piece in the should, having two seemingly incongruous sides. 
Faux Vitrine
Mirror polished stainless steel, curly maple, black walnut,
marine plywood, Japan color
73 3/4" x 46 1/2" x 40 3/4"
One side being colorful, vibrant, organic, smooth, and welcoming; the other, stark, angular, sterile, and cold. Looking at one side you'd never guess that the other exists, or even why it would exist.
Faux Vitrine (second view)
In fact, as much as any piece in the show, it is a bit of a conundrum. A sculpture based on a functional glass display case? But one that really couldn't display anything, and doesn't even have any glass?
Faux Vitrine (third view)
Opposite sides of a single coin? Mirror images of itself with mirrors? A piece that asks what do you see and actually shows you an image of yourself? Beauty and perfection existing on both sides even though they are completely different? A statement about commercialism? 
Faux Vitrine (fourth view)
In Shell Game is more direct, at least in the title, that he is playing with the viewers ability to decipher the intent of each piece and this one is a toy.
Shell Game
tulip poplar, milk paint
56 1/4" x 72" x 9 1/2"
A spoon? A shell? A path from one to the other? Perhaps the shell symbolizes shelter or housing and the spoon, food, thereby creating a link between housing, food, and liberty.
Shell Game (second view)
Or perhaps, as a toy, he referencing the freedom of childhood play, imagining moving a marble around the track between the spoon and the shell.
Shell Game (first closeup)
Certainly the color selection and the painting technique have deep meaning as well, I'm sure they were selected carefully, but the intent isn't immediately clear.

One of the amazing things about all the pieces in the show is how they only become more interesting the closer you get to them.
Shell Game (second closeup)
What I love about Big Phrygian is that it can be see in so many different ways, it looks exactly like a phrygian, so it is representational; but at such a large scale it seems to take on a purely abstract form as well;
Big Phrygian
painted red cedar
58" x 40" x 76"
and, interestingly, it also has a very organic feel to it, as if it is representational of some blob-ish imaginary life-form.
Big Phrygian (second view)
In closeup you can see it was made with strips of red cedar using boat building techniques. Notice how Martin didn't try and hide the staple holes that were used to hold the strips to a frame during glue up, instead leaving them to contribute to the history of the surface along with the hand tool marks. Somehow the piece seems to perfectly balance impeccable craftsmanship with an imperfect surface that celebrates the hand of the craftsman. 
Big Phrygian (closeup)
With his slumped over taffy-pulled-like Question, Martin seems to playing with the viewers sense of what he intends. 
tulip poplar, pine, ash
90" x 1091/4" x 34 1/2"
A question mark that has been manipulated into a phrygian in a way that implies it has softened, twisted, and slumped over. 
Question (first closeup)
The weight of the "period" is also an interesting contrast with the rest of the piece. It seems so immovable and permanent relative to the flexibility and delicateness of the other section.

He is clearly saying something about the relationship of questions with liberty, but the intent remains ambiguous, leaving a question that can never be answered.
Question (second closeup)
Untitled is the largest, and final, piece in the show and, though it is also the most crudely made, combining stripped saplings tied together with twine, it is still assembled with artistry and precision. It is also interesting to see how closely it resembles the etching Untitled at the entrance of the show.
hardwood sapling, cordage
174 1/2" x 148" x 52"
 (image taken from Matthew Marks Gallery website)
From the side you can see its depth and how it is strung together. It obviously holds a lot of tension, like a bow -- it is bound, held in place, and seems to want to move in a direction counter to where it is at, creating a visual tension between liberty and imprisonment/immobility.
Untitled (second view)
And from the closeup you can see how beautiful the binding is, but also note how excessive it looks relative to what would be needed to hold it in place, which I think is an important point of the sculpture. 
Untitled (first closeup)
Untitled (second closeup)
As a whole, I find the incredible diversity of styles, techniques, and forms Martin has demonstrated throughout the show astounding. He shows such a virtuosic range, like an opera singer who can hit unimaginable high notes as well as the deepest low notes and never falter. I'm impressed.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Queensbury, NY Billboard For Sale On eBay

I am excited to announce that I listed my billboard, Queensbury, NY, for sale on eBay. If you are interested in seeing the auction, you can follow it here. Bidding ends February 25, 2015 at 3:00 pm EST.

I first wrote about this project here, but, for a summary, I was inspired to create and pay for the installation to provide a counter-weight to the deluge of demanding messages we all receive everyday. It is my hope that by saying nothing, the billboard would provide mental space for the viewer, allowing time to just "be" without being told what to believe, feel, do.
Queensbury, NY
print on plastic fabric
10'5" x 22'8"
photo credit: Emma Dodge Hanson
I was really lucky to find a great photographer who lives in the Queensbury area, Emma Dodge Hanson, to document the project for me. It is such a blessing to work with a professional who understood my goals and could compliment my artistic vision.
 Queensbury, NY
photo credit: Emma Dodge Hanson
I am also very pleased to have received some good press coverage of the piece -- Pamela Polston of Seven Days wrote an excellent article Vermont Artist Robert Hitzig Makes A Billboard Statement and I was interviewed by Lucas Willard of Northeast Public Radio out of Albany, NY for the story: Vermont Artist Reflects On Wordless Billboard Project.
 Queensbury, NY
photo credit: Emma Dodge Hanson
When I started this project, I thought the billboard would be destroyed at the end of the installation, but to my surprise, I learned after it went up that it is printed on a thin plastic fabric that can be easily shipped and stored. In fact, the billboard weights less than 5 lbs and was shipped to me is a medium sized box. However, because the billboard was cut at places along the edge in order to remove it, and it is not in mint condition, having been displayed outdoors for a month, I photographed it in the Montpelier High School cafeteria so that perspective buyers would be able to see its current condition.
 Queensbury, NY
Montpelier High School cafeteria February 2015
In offering it for sale, I hope to raise enough money to create another and, ultimately, maintain an ongoing self-sustaining series. I'd love to do more of these, it would be fun, and I think it would do some good too! 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fun With Scraps

Everyone I know that works with wood deals with the same debate, what to do with scraps --when are the worth saving and when are they destined for the scrap bucket. It is always a tough call because there is always a theoretical future use for all scraps. However, it is easy to become suffocated by a pile of tiny pieces that will never find a purpose. As I started a couple of new pieces recently, I had a bunch of small pieces that I couldn't allow myself to throw away. Thankfully, they were still laying around when I took a break from the new work, giving me a chance play with them, along with a few other older scraps that were just too chunky to go in the BTU pile.  
 December 2014a
acrylic and varnish on wood
10.5" x 5.5" x 2.25"
I enjoyed pairing them together and examining different ways they could be assembled -- looking at the relationships, interactions, and figuring out the configurations that resonated with me.
  December 2014b
acrylic and varnish on wood
14.75" x 4.75" x 2.25"
I like how they are simple pairings, just two pieces that somehow seem made for each other, by pure chance alone.
  December 2014c
acrylic and varnish on wood
13.5" x 7" x 3.5"
I also like how the sculptures gave me a canvas on which to create playful/thoughtless miniature paintings. I don't know what it is about those shapes, but I do love them, and how they reflect the shape of the overall sculpture. But the thing I love most about them is the blend of colors. They are so full of surprising interactions that I can't plan or predict but just seem to work no matter what I do.
 December 2014c (closeup)
I love the complete line, or wave, of the brush stroke too. I feel that each of the paintings are interesting and beautiful on their own.
  December 2014d
acrylic and varnish on wood
14.25" x 12" x 3.5"
They inspire me to think of ways of blowing them up and making a large one.
December 2014d (closeup) 
I'll need to let the idea sit a while before I can act on it, but I feel it is something I'll need to see at some point, once I figure out how to do it.
 December 2014e
acrylic and varnish on wood
21" x 8.5" x 2.25"
Anyway, these were fun to make, and I find them fun to look at, and they give me inspiration for future pieces. Stay tuned.