Off the wall

Sculpture and craft intersect at Aucocisco
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  January 23, 2008
art_ChinaZakinside
"CHINA ZAK": By Richard Van Buren.

Sometime around 1970 I wandered into the art gallery at Vermont's Bennington College and got a surprise. In those days I was just getting to know contemporary art, and that solo show by Richard Van Buren very quickly broadened my then-limited horizon, like hearing Charlie Parker for the first time. The pieces were colored cast-plastic shapes hanging on the wall in vertical strands. My idea of the possibilities of art broadened in an instant. I still remember them vividly.

Over the ensuing years I saw a number of shows of Van Buren’s work, as did anyone with a serious interest in sculpture. I lost track of his work over the last dozen years or so, and was delighted to learn there would be a show in Portland at Aucocisco. Van Buren is sharing the space with David Moses Bridges, his neighbor in Perry, Maine. Bridges builds birch-bark canoes and makes traditional baskets. Their work is quite different but there are deeper themes that bring them together.

Van Buren’s current work comes off the wall with almost aggressive ambiguity. The busy shapes and hollows of highly, almost garishly, colored thermoplastic are profoundly artificial even while they seem to relate to natural shapes, to trees or roots or seaweed. There’s more than a hint of Passamaquoddy Bay in these works, plus a bit of the high finish of custom cars. Shapes dip and crumble and create convoluted interior spaces in a rococo fantasy gone berserk. Little nodules and pieces cluster together, piling bright blues on pinks mixed with bits of gold. Little smooth, modeled shapes change into rough textures and solid areas morph into sections of lacy airiness.

It is the task of the sculptor make an object that feels inevitable, as if it was always there but hadn’t been discovered yet. Van Buren piles contradiction on contradiction in these pieces in an apparently discordant jumble, demonstrating that harmony exists where we had not thought to look for it. These are the successful works of a mature artist who has thought long and well about how we look at what is around us.

David Moses Bridges engages his surroundings quite differently. He makes canoes and baskets using traditional techniques and materials from birch bark, spruce, cedar, and other materials from the Passamaquoddy environment. His grandfather was a canoe builder, and with inherited knowledge and tools augmented by experience gained from Maine boatbuilding shops he now builds canoes using techniques that go back centuries.

There are no metal fasteners in these pieces. The canoe in the gallery was made from the bark of a single birch tree with spruce frames and planking, and is held together with lashings made from strips of spruce root and waterproofed with pitch and bear grease. It is light and solid, is a joy to look at, and looks like it would be a joy to use.

The baskets are made with thick birch bark that has been molded into shapes and lashed with spruce root strips. Bridges decorates them with patterns or images by lightly carving the outer, dark layer to reveal a lighter layer below. The engraved graphic works are done the same way, with the image produced by revealing the contrasting lower layer. These are calm, graceful works of undeniable beauty.

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