Raw, Cooked and Globalized

Twelve sculptors, members of the Sculptors Association of New Jersey, are exhibiting at the Silva Gallery at the Pennington School, 112 West Delaware Ave., Pennington, through April 30.

…these sculptures represent our interpretation of the world around us, and perhaps within us, translated through our hands,” writes Michael Wiley, one of the sculptors who has organized the exhibit.

An artist’s talk by participating artist Frances Heinrich will be presented April 13 at noon in the Lecture Center, Stainton Hall on the school campus. The title of the talk is “Today’s Globalized Aesthetic”.  It is open to the public, and is free.

Here’s what I wrote about the Sculptors Association of New Jersey in 2008, when they exhibited at Artworks in Trenton:

AT the center of the café is an old valise on a table. Arising from its open lid are neon letters spelling out “café thou art.” A shabby folding chair, a lamp, a toy dinosaur and duck and child-size chairs with wood scraps that look as if they could be used as building blocks complete the furnishings. There are tea lights atop a small bookshelf, and handmade artwork, a map of Pennsylvania and a poem have been taped to the back wall.

The universal café looks like the roving living room of a nomad, a set up a vagrant might construct in, say, Grand Central Station or on a city street. In fact, the artist, Jeff Packard, does that very thing with this installation. He has set up his spontaneous portable café all over the world, and has just returned from Israel with it.

“The main intention is to create a thoughtful and fun moment for people,” he writes in his artist statement. In its current iteration, “café thou art” includes portable miniature golf with a box of pencils for keeping score, and snacks – pretzels and peanuts.

“His concept is that the whole world is a café, and it’s very raw,” says Janis Purcell, curator of The Raw and the Cooked at Artworks in Trenton through April 26.

The exhibit title was also the title of a book by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, in which he postulated a thematic link between the natural world and the human cultural world. Cooking denotes the transition from nature to created by hand.

The New York poet, Dennis Corbett, wrote “in the artist’s hands the raw stuff of creation is transformed or presented in elemental purity, raw diamonds and raw ideals” and “raw like an oyster, cooked like a pearl.”

Ms. Purcell has taken this concept of raw and cooked to provide a way of viewing the range of works by the Sculptors Association of New Jersey at Artworks. Founded in 1971, SANJ is a group of professional artists from all over the state dedicated to promoting excellence in the field of sculpture. Ms. Purcell was introduced to SANJ two years ago by Princeton-based artist Frances Heinrich, whose “raw” installation, “Sterilized Blue/See Not, Sterilized Yellow/Speak Not, Steriled Pink/Hear Not,” is part of the exhibit.

So, while Mr. Packard’s café thou art is definitely raw, Mira Welnowska’s classically sculpted and bronzed dancers are cooked. “The classical influence led me to express myself in my artwork in the realistic traditional style,” she writes. “In my sculptures, I like to emphasize the harmony between human kind and nature.”

Although some of her fellow SANJ members say Ms. Purcell’s sculpture is “cooked,” she considers herself on the edge. Although it is well crafted, “I’m using clay in an untraditional manner,” says the East Windsor resident. “I’m trying to be more raw and spontaneous.”

Ms. Purcell earned her master’s degree in sculpture at Brooklyn College in the 1980s, and joined SANJ “because I was ready to go to the next level,” says the daughter of Italian immigrants who worked as tailors and garment designers. “There was always a fascinating clutter of fabrics, notions and trims around my house. My father was always building something, and I grew up constantly making things with my hands – sewing, embroidery, bread and pasta.”

She retired from a career in framing in 2000 so she could devote herself full time to her artwork, and since then has worked at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College, of which Artworks was then a part.

“Much of my work is an exploration of the shapes and forms from the collective unconscious, while other elements are drawn directly from my own experience,” she writes in her artist statement. “Nature, symbols and archetypes are what inspire me. I want my sculptures to evoke deep primordial emotions, while I strive to achieve shapes and forms with universal meanings. Taken as a whole, my current body of work creates the landscape of my dreams.”

“Lyrical,” stoneware painted green, looks as if it could be the lower half of a female figure, turned upside down, with golden spirals for feet, or, alternatively, the ears of an elf. Either way, it brings a smile to a viewer.

The shape is based on the lyre, says Ms. Purcell, who finds inspiration in Joan Miro and Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” “I’m constantly observing nature, how the leaves are joined to stems and how the seeds sit on the stamens,” she says. “I’ll spend hours in the garden observing the fiddleheads of fern. I’m a constant gardener and daydreamer. I think about my art all the time.”

Ms. Purcell would like to be more spontaneous, but says her work requires careful engineering for structure. It took two years to complete “Lyrical.”

Her parents, who live in Jamesburg, are her toughest critics, she says. “They always want to know when I’m going to grow up. They think I’m playing – and I am!”

Michael Wiley, too, is having a good time. His installation, “Paradox,” is made from chairs that once sat around his dining room table. Rather than fix them when the rush seats started to fray, he gave them a new life. While they hung from the rafters of his West Trenton studio, he enjoyed watching them deconstruct.

“I work with raw materials I come upon,” says Mr. Wiley. “My pieces are a response to the materials. I let them dictate what’s going to happen and I don’t get in the way.”

Simultaneously, he became fascinated with the robin eggs hatching in nests around his house and photographed them daily until the mother decided it was time for the young ones to take flight. “I’ve always loved the outdoors,” says Mr. Wiley. “Both my parents painted outdoors and brought me along.”

Mr. Wiley used the abandoned nests and put them in Plexiglas boxes, wrapped with twine, then hung these under the chairs. The juxtaposition of the natural forms with the manmade hard plastic angles is the paradox to which he refers.

“The challenge is not to get in the way, to let the piece happen,” he says. “Once it comes together and I put it out there, it’s not my place to tell you what I mean because I may very well not know what I mean.”

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