James Surls

Delahunty and Robinson galleries

James Surls’ sculpture has started to dance, float and rotate. His recent show indicates a lighter orientation both in form and in handling of materials. The show included both drawings and sculpture; the drawings are not studies for the sculpture, but offer insight into a fantasy world that is certainly shared by the sculpture.

A drawing like Stick Dance for Red Bird is visually complex, but very revealing. Hard and soft outlines and scale distortions convey a mental, rather than a physical, reality. A large self-portrait of the sculptor reaches out at the left; carving and a female figure-tree form float on the right. In the background a tiny faintly drawn house seems to stand for the physical world, while the looming artist draws on a fantasy of nature.

Surls’ art is rooted in the earth. In a piece like Dancing Man, 1977, oak and pine are whittled and hewn. A natural vertical twisting of the wood is the point of departure; Surls has added limbs of separate pieces. The result looks as if one of his familiar spikey monsters is leaping in the air, feet splayed. A burned-on spiral decoration gives a skinlike effect. Staring eyes may be a reference to Egyptian art, but the spiny hands relate more to prehistoric Indian pictographs.

One theme of Surls’ work appears to be physical/psychic containment and release. It is clearly stated in a drawing “One-Three-Five-Seven, leaven, Heaven, See the Star, Travel, Cause a soul don’t live in a Mason jar,” where tiny figures are encased in a jar surrounded by wild, winged beasts. It also emerges when the Dallas pieces are compared to Bloom, 1979, in a smaller show in Houston. This heavy, spikey floor piece has wooden arms with a metal collar encasing the center and holding it together. The restraining effect of the metal on the wood is the flip-side of the sense of dancing and floating seen in the sculpture in Dallas.

Another preoccupation is the interplay of the physical materials, the artist’s active involvement with them and his sense of fantasy. Surls’ work has anthropomorphic overtones in the body like forms and the carved eyes. The sculptures have a strange presence, somewhere between animal and man.

Susan Platt