by Mikko Lautamo
Wood (mù) is the first element of the Chinese Wu Xing, a schema of five elements used to describe all aspects of existence, from aesthetic principles and historical events to political structures, social norms and much else. That it is also an element of growth, strength and flexibility sums up nicely the varied wood-based works on view in this exhibition of the same title. Still, it’s a rather flimsy peg on which to hang a show. That is because exhibitions based around the use of a single material all too often lack conceptual heft. My advice: Don’t let this simple premise mislead you. This is a powerhouse showing of A-list, mid- and late-career artists.
Gustavo Ramos Rivera’s Stargazer is the largest and liveliest of the works on view. A construction mixing bright primary colors with playful, gangly sticks and lopsided boxes, this object, by all rights, should appear awkward and off-kilter, but in Rivera’s hands it achieves a miraculous sense of balance. The sculpture, made in 1989, is one of a handful of works from the late 20th century. Enrique Chagoya’s Domino Theory Diplomacy (1981) is another. Thus, if we lean on the wood metaphor, these older works can be likened to the gnarled roots of a tree. The more numerous newer works are the budding leaves, and somewhere in the middle are the works from a decade past. Each argues for different notions of beauty.
Robert Brady’s pair of gaunt wood sculptures, Seated Figure with Ovid and Seated Figure with Tie, exhibit a wayward gravitas, their emaciated features pointing to the twin influences of Giacometti and Stephen de Staebler – and, to the illness that as a teenager left him temporarily disabled. It’s one of the highlights of the show.
Tony May submits a parasol-shaped kinetic sculpture made from found objects; Mike Henderson, an abstract painting on wood; William T. Wiley, a printing block/self-portrait, marked as such by the artist’s tall, lean figure and by the dunce cap that’s long been a fixture in his semi-autobiographical paintings. Gyöngy Laky offers an unnerving political/environmental piece composed of green twigs and small plastic butterflies: a gnarly wall-mounted thicket held together by visible screws. Frank LaPena’s Traveling Staff, topped by what could be the contorted head of a dove, is, quite literally, a hidden gem. It’s installed in a tiny nook, looking as if it had sprouted from an electrical conduit. Squeak Carnwath’s Chair with Box, featuring a cigar box overflowing with paint tubes, and Tom Marioni’s Beer Wood each engage personal mythologies. Carnwath’s, comes directly out of her studio practice; Marioni’s is a coy reference to his weekly salon and longstanding artworld in-joke, FREE BEER (The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art), 1970-1979. Peter Stegall, a Matisse-influenced painter who occasionally sculpts, installs a snake form inside a small, grid-like geometric box. Lonny Tomono, Jack Ogden and Meech Miyagi each shape the figure in wildly different ways. Miyagi’s entry, Blinded by Certainty, stands out for how its tissue-paper-over wood construction evokes both a pile of tumbleweed and a hunched-over figure – a thinker, perhaps, or Gollum shivering in the dark.
Of all the works exhibited, Chris Daubert’s Giorgio Morandi, 1918 engages the theme most fully. It’s a plain pinewood box housing a sphere, a wavy dowel and a 6-inch-long plank suspended from fishing line. The box itself is topped by a bottle of the exact sort Morandi painted. The work, however, is a sculptural re-creation of one of Morandi’s early paintings – made while he was briefly aligned with Pittura Metafisica, a movement whose members included Carlo Carrà and Giorgio di Chirico. It’s a wry look at a student trying to become a master by emulating other masters, only to find true mastery when painting like the student he once was. It’s as fine a metaphor as any for the all-encompassing ideas about change and growth embodied by Wu Xing.
# # #
“Mù (Wood) Show” @ b. sakata garo through February 3, 2018.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist and educator from Sacramento. His work uses computer code to create interactive and never-repeating installations centering on blended biological, social, and economic systems. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in the United States, Australia and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.