Sam Perry Hand Forged, 2010 Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery
Sam Perry, Hand Forged, 2010. Courtesy: Rena Bransten Gallery

By Marcia Tanner

One of the many aesthetic pleasures of ORIGINS:Elemental Forms in Contemporary Sculpture — a provocative group sculpture exhibition now at the Berkeley Art Center through June 9 — is the installation itself. Walking into the light-filled airy gallery, you’re confronted with an artfully composed array of three-dimensional (and a few two-dimensional) forms: large and small, inspired by geometric and organic shapes, abstract or figurative or somewhere in between, mostly using traditional materials and all crafted by hand.

The display has such visual coherence it takes a minute or so to realize that the individual works are very different from each other, and that several artists — twelve to be exact, four women and eight men, all from the Bay Area — are represented here, in mini-solo shows whose close proximity sparks a lively conversation among themselves and with the viewer.

A Mars/Venus dialogue opens the discussion. The exhibition juxtaposes expressions of almost stereotypical masculinity and femininity. Bold phallic forms by male artists dominate the space; the more intimate works by female artists reveal themselves gradually.  Another dialogue concerns process and materials: the varying ways these artists treat wood, metal, glass, ceramics, fiber, and organic and synthetic stuff. Color is also a topic of discussion: whether or not to add it, and if adding by what method: Apply? Infuse? If left au naturel, to polish smoothly or leave rough? To patinate or not?

As to form, should it be a solid or penetrable? And if penetrable, in what ways? What about scale? Does size matter and if so, how? Can a tiny object potentially have as much emotional and visceral impact as one larger than you are? Can sculpture be both zany and serious at the same time? Is it enough that it be simply about form, process, materials and technique, and enjoyable to look at? Or does it demand another dimension — of metaphor, ideas or implicit narrative, some conceptual component — to qualify as art rather than craft, design or decor?

In an era when the definition of “sculpture” has stretched to include events (actions and performances), kinetics (sculptures that move), time-based media (film, video, electronic and digital works), a variety of nontraditional materials (plastics, resins, fiberglas, etc.), and modes of presentation (site-specific installations, street works, documentation), ORIGINS is a back-to-basics show. Some critics might even consider it a bit retro. It defines sculpture in the old-fashioned sense, as discrete handmade objects, three-dimensional things that sit or stand, occasionally on pedestals. They are motionless, silent and alluringly tactile.

Gay Outlaw Lovers, 2012 pâte de verre 6 x 10 x 7 inches Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim
Gay Outlaw. Lovers, 2012, pâte de verre, 6 x 10 x 7.” Courtesy: Gallery Paule Anglim
Gay Outlaw. Lovers, 2012, pâte de verre, 6 x 10 x 7.” Courtesy: Gallery Paule Anglim

Gay Outlaw’s innocent-looking, brightly colored small pâte de verre objects embody many of the questions raised by this exhibition. (Pâte de verre is decorative glass made in a mold in which powdered glass of various hues is mixed, blended, and fused.) Their deceptively simple, quasi-organic quasi-geometric shapes vaguely resemble soft toys while playfully undermining conventions of contemporary sculpture. Abstract yet suggestive, Outlaw’s Lovers, 2012, might be a cartoon version of a Joel Shapiro piece, its popsicle-colored post-coital floppiness belying the brittle translucent medium it’s made from. Try imagining it on a monumental scale, cast in bronze and placed in a public space or corporate campus, where it would be a plausible if generic work of “plop art.” Outlaw’s choice of scale and materials turns Lovers into a sly critical commentary. 

Sam Perry’s wood sculptures are technically prodigious, formally compelling and conceptually layered. Perry cures and ages cut trees and transforms them into curvilinear forms that reveal each tree’s history while giving it new, metaphorical life. Hand Forged, 2010, carved from a single piece of wood, resembles three interlocking metal links of a giant chain. Its title, like the sculpture, is a multiple pun. The piece is itself a hand-made forgery, carved wood imitating forged iron. The title also alludes to the human skill and labor entailed in the making of this work, and beyond that to the effort of forging and maintaining human connections, the unbreakable chains of individual lives inextricably linked and rooted in nature.

Esther Traugot Untitled (quail egg), 2013 quail egg shell and hand-dyed cotton thread 3 ½ x 3 ½ x 2 7/8 inches Courtesy of Chandra Cerrito Contemporary
Esther Traugot, Untitled (quail egg), 2013, quail egg shell and hand-dyed cotton thread, 3 ½ x 3 ½ x 2 7/8.” Courtesy:  Chandra Cerrito Contemporary
Esther Traugot, Untitled (quail egg), 2013, quail egg shell and hand-dyed cotton thread, 3 ½ x 3 ½ x 2 7/8.” Courtesy:  Chandra Cerrito Contemporary

In an exhibition with so many artists, it’s difficult to do justice to all of them in a brief review. Esther Traugot should be noticed, though, for her fanciful, tenderly maternal and patently futile alterations of tiny organic shelters — quail eggs, seashells — now emptied of life. Using hand-dyed cotton thread, she meticulously crochets clothing for them: sweaters to keep the vacant eggs warm, linings that fill the seashells’ voids. Her works reflect upon the human impulse to nurture and rescue the natural world we are rapidly destroying thanks to our equally powerful impulse to control and plunder it. They are self-mocking exercises in magical thinking, exquisite gestures of caring and despair.

The other artists in this rich, multifaceted exhibition are Tor Archer, Donald Fortescue, Carrie Lederer, Nina Lyons, Eric Powell, Matt Reynoso, Yoshitomo Saito, Joe Slusky and Gordon Senior. If the show has a flaw, it’s that it’s a little overstuffed with artists and could have made its points with fewer of them. Still, it’s a feast.

Since 2009, when Suzanne Tan became Executive Director, the Berkeley Art Center has increasingly been living up to its name as a vital hub of visual culture for Berkeley. ORIGINS was co-curated by Suzanne Tan and Ann Weber.  Go see it; I think you’ll be provoked, surprised and delighted.

ORIGINS: Elemental Forms in Contemporary Sculpture
Through June 9, 2013
Berkeley Art Center
1275 Walnut Street, Berkeley, 94709
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 12-5 pm

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