The Hudson Review

The Hudson Review, Fall, 2011, review of Isherwood exhibition by Karen Wilkin

Much further uptown-upstate, in fact, but not as far as the Poons show in New Berlin-at John Davis Gallery, in Hudson, New York, a series of small, concurrent one person shows, distributed throughout his quirky, multi-level gallery spaces, presented three very different conceptions of what sculpture can be: Jon Isherwood’s multivalent stone objects, Joyce Robins’ ceramic accretions of richly associative but unidentifiable forms, and Bruce Gagnier’s disconcerting figures. Isherwood has been a pioneer of computer-driven carving, using complex technology to produce swelling stone monoliths that drag the biomorphic tradition of Arp and Brancusi, and perhaps even the heritage of Isherwood’s compatriot, Henry Moore, into the twenty-first century. His recent pieces at once evoke ancient utilitarian vessels and the human torso, without overtly resembling either; rather, these overtones are triggered by the scale of the burgeoning forms, the relationship of their exteriors to their implied interiors, and their sense of containment. Delicately incised, unpredictable surface patterns, often recording the real labor of Isherwood’s touch-the mark of the hand that initiates and completes each sculpture-accentuate the sense of volume, at the same time that they call attention to the color and grain of the stone, which always influences the shape of the finished piece. Works on paper explored the permutations of chevrons, swirls, and what Isherwood calls “forms and pre-forms” in two dimensions, further sharpening our awareness of the importance of pattern to our response to the carved masses. Because of their container- and torso-like configurations, and because of their slumping, bulging forms, Isherwood’s stone sculptures provoke associations with soft, yielding objects. Yet the incisions on the surface of the stone assert the real density and recalcitrance of the material. The tension between these conflicting readings animates the sculptures.

A similar conflict, between what we expect of clay and the forms it has been used to create, was at the heart of Joyce Robins’ installation of (mostly) floor-mounted sculptures in the upper regions of the gallery’s rough-hewn former carriage house. Robins often adopts multiple units, massing small, repetitive ceramic elements into lush surfaces or ganging them together. The exhibition included some fragile recent “paintings” made of clustered rings of subtle color, but most of the works were from a series made some years ago but not previously exhibited. Robins rang changes on irregular cubes, some about a foot in each dimension, some smaller, with pierced, wrenched sides and pinched edges. We were acutely aware of the underlying geometry, but just as acutely aware of Robins’ interventions and her transformation of the Euclidean ideal. Arranged in familial clusters-a circle, a line, an open square-unified by color and finish-a chalky off-white, an elegant graphite grey, a dusty terra cotta-each grouping remained distinct but entered into a conversation with the others. The serial nature of each sculpture drew our attention to the variations among its individual forms, to the way, for example, the warped, open “cages” of 3 White Cubes threatened to shift if we looked away, or to how the pulled-out edges and piercings of the terra cotta cubes started to suggest vertebrae as much as geometry. The spaces between the forms, as we looked down at the groupings and through the serried elements, assumed increasing importance. Robins says that she was interested, at the time, in seeing how open she could make the forms without compromising their ability to sustain themselves. Part of the series’ fascination is the contradiction she sets up between our accumulated (probably inaccurate) ideas about what clay is capable of and the pierced, surprising forms she presents us with. But quite apart from any technical considerations, Robins’ ambiguous, moody objects, with their strange, appealing surfaces, suggested elusive systems whose mysteries we could uncover if we only looked hard and long enough. Or maybe not. Sometimes, the arrangements of blocks seemed like prehistoric toys–playful and witty. However we responded to the installation on the top floor of the gallery, Robins’ sculptures were worth the climb.

Gagnier’s lively figures, some in bronze, inhabited the ground floor and courtyard of the complex of buildings. As always, each of his personages was a distinct individual, despite the unbalanced poses and exaggerated anatomy, seemingly haunted by memories of the overscaled limbs of Michelangelo’s and Rodin’s heroic creatures, with a nod at Donatello, that he has taught us to expect of him. As always, the agitated, active surfaces of his figures seemed to have been generated by internal pressures, as if the movement implied by their off-kilter stances and flexed joints had manifested itself by inflecting the material from which the sculpture was made. Rather than reading simply as evidence of the action of the sculptor’s hand, the exteriors of Gagnier’s most convincing works seem to have been generated from the inside out. There’s something engagingly cartoon-like about his cast of characters, at the same time that they declare the highest and most serious aspirations for how the human body can be invoked in contemporary terms. I’m not sure what I think about the rich tawny hue of the bronzes, since I’m more familiar with Gagnier’s large-scale work in pale Hydrocal. An initial impression is that surface, rather than three dimensional form in space, declares itself more insistently in the bronzes than in the sculptures cast in matte, lighter-colored materials. But I need to see more of them to make up my mind.

Paintings were also included in the August constellation of exhibitions distributed through John Davis’ warren of spaces, most notably calligraphic improvisations in primary and near-primary colors by Michael Volonakis, beefed-up versions of the delicate drawing at Lori Bookstein Fine Arts. The ability to invent expressive, energetic shapes and sweeps so evident in Volonakis’ works on paper was clear in his paintings, thickened and slightly slowed down by the density of paint. I missed some of the sense of layering that makes his paperworks so compelling, but his sensitivity to the properties of his materials was almost compensation enough. It was worth returning to Hudson a few weeks later for one of Davis’ next shows, a selection of intimate works on paper by Fran O’Neill, all delicate webs of line and scrubbed pools of color. O’Neill’s earlier canvases incorporated patterned textiles, first as background to idiosyncratic still lifes that included a grotesque figure, like an Asian puppet. Gradually, the puppet and other more “anecdotal” imagery were subsumed by patterning while color intensified. Now, pattern has been completely detached from reference and treated as a kind of painting language; the color range has become more subtle and tonal, space has opened up, while surface texture and the physical nature of strokes and lines have become increasingly important. While O’Neill’s ability to spin out eloquent line is still present, her paintings have become more “painterly,” in the Wolfflin-ian sense. I’ve followed this interesting painter’s work for some time, and I was glad for the opportunity to see how it is evolving.