New York

Aaron Spangler


In the contemporary art world, work featuring (or even originating from) the prairie states is about as popular as wood carving, but both figured prominently in Aaron Spangler’s recent exhibition. While there have been fitful creative explorations of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s Montana cabin by Seth Weiner (in faithful reproduction; Hermitage, 2007), Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym (in souvenir mode; Souvenirs for the End of the Century, 1998), and Richard Barnes (in crisp color photographs; 1998); and while Catherine Opie has captured the languor of Minneapolis’s ice-fishing huts and Habitrail of skyways (“Icehouses” and “Skyways,” both 2001), ultimately these are all objective—sometimes trivial—architectural studies that tend to obscure, if not ignore, the lore of the places they crave to capture.

Spangler, by contrast, searches beyond—or, more accurately, before—the built environment, but as a native son of the prairie, he not only appears to have a more sympathetic eye for what remains in the wake of the region’s industrial decline, but has resisted the conventions of wood carving by transforming a marginalized craft typically associated with bearded, plaid-shirted gentlemen of a certain age into a conduit for the mythology of the Midwest without diminishing its tactility or symbolic richness. The prairie, despite pioneering, settlement, and its eventual degeneration, asserts itself as a distinct element of the work.

Spangler’s large-scale bas-relief carvings are rendered in basswood—a product of the waning timber industry near his rural northern Minnesota home. He uses only chisels, mallets, and a Dremel-type rotary tool. The basswood is more malleable than the soft maple he used in his apocalyptic, militia-themed, post-9/11 work and is possessed of a more even grain. The carvings are coated in black gesso and then graphite, lending them a slightly ghoulish appearance, suggestive of relics or talismans. The narratives here blur myth and reality: Spangler’s ability to reveal something (literally and figuratively) just below the surface of the fable-like scenes he depicts is unerring—the homesteader’s relationship to the land; American pioneering gone bust.

In Prairie Destroyer (all works 2007), Spangler rewrites the history of Ponsford, Minnesota—once a logging center bordering the thriving White Earth Indian reservation, today not much more than a ghost town bypassed by a highway when logging left in the 1940s. An abandoned train engine and an oversize ring pull take up residence in a decimated field of grain and trees. Earthly Delights is marginally more optimistic—a depiction of rural self-sufficiency and better times in a timber-logging forest. These are landscapes of a uniquely Midwestern innocence; vignettes of the flat “flyover” states. A Martyr’s Parade is, compositionally at least, the most striking of the group, capturing the spirit of a WPA-era mural with its gothic rooftops, three-bar cross, and abstracted figures carrying a coffin. Nature Is for Real, meanwhile, is a dramatic freestanding carving of two trees, the tendril-like roots of one encasing the stump of another. Signaling an almost primordial reclamation by the earth, it makes fully three-dimensional that which all of Spangler’s landscapes seem to anticipate.

Eugenia Bell