New York

James Surls

Marlborough | Midtown

James Surls’ massive, baroque assemblages of wood and steel tend to inspire a certain art-historical amnesia. Perhaps the primary cause of this forgetfullness, apart from his signature theatricality—especially the monumental scale and gravity-defying bravado of his works—is the anachronistic nature of his formal and conceptual concerns. On the one hand, these contorted, quasi-figural clusters of whittled and chopped tree-branches resonate, albeit after the fact, with the quasi-organic, expressive mode of sculpture that flowered in the ’80s such as the work of Petah Coyne and Carol Hepper. On the other hand, his work’s rather grandiose archetypal and symbolic thrust ultimately recalls the Jungian ’40s.

His most recent sculptures appear to hover, dance, or spin according to a logic informed by both natural and human forces. Brought up in the woods of east Texas under the tutelage of his carpenter father, Surfs established a strong connection to natural materials. Ranging from works that evoke a pure, dynamic organicism, such as the linked clusters of floral elements in Around the Flower Grows, 1993, to the unsettling figure suspended mid-torque with a house for a head in How Far Back, 1989, most of Surls’ creations play across the nature-culture continuum.

Like refugees from the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, the skinny hybrids that populate works such as Dancing on the Bridge, 1992, are breathtaking to behold, but also a little bit alienating if considered over time. These creatures, involved as they are either in happy, orgasmic posturing (Dancing Man with Three Flowers, 1993) or angry, violent slashing activities (Again the Meat Man and the Bait Fish, 1993), are quite fun, but when plumbed for meaning, their very generic expressivity and moralizing symbolism can be frustrating. In striving so boldly for an outdated universality, Surls would no doubt lose a large part of his audience if he didn’t entertain them so well—such strong, nonculturally specific pronouncements about the “human condition” end up coming across as trite, nostalgic, even corny. The lesson of good and evil told through the giant wooden knife with the vicious blade and the rounded, anthropomorphic handle in White Knife/Black Handle: Two Ways, 1993, is a powerful one, but it is also a painfully moot point. Yet, like a seasoned and compelling storyteller, Surls’ wooden plants and beasts are so seductive that such concerns quickly become secondary.

Much has been made of Surls’ alleged affinities with American folk art, but the calculated borrowings that were evident in this show—Surls’ clever transformation of the visual language of Eskimo masks into dynamic floral entities in particular—place him squarely in the mainstream. A work like The Death of St. Sebastian, 1993—a gnarled tree-trunk covered with unblinking eyes—invites comparisons with self-taught root sculptors like Bessie Harvey and Ralph Griffin, but the differences are more profound than the similarities. While Surfs’ giant sculptures are concept-heavy symbols of the force of human spirit, Harvey’s intimate, gnarled root-people literally embody this force in their own right, and it would be a mistake to confuse these two essentially opposite modes. As an artist driven to explore grand truths, through grand symbols, on a grand scale, Surfs has more in common with his Modernist precursors than he does with Harvey.

Jenifer P. Borum