Against the Grain

BMoCA has wood carvings and wood blocks, while the SCFD is being run by blockheads.

In a few weeks, the fall art season will get under way, and as I look into my crystal ball, I see an unprecedented tsunami of exhibitions and events. (I feel like I'm drowning already.) The October opening of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum is the reason.

In honor of this momentous and internationally noted ribbon-cutting of Daniel Libeskind's confection, the DAM will host not one, but three blockbusters. In addition, there will be new permanent-collection galleries in the Hamilton Building, and all of the permanent-collection galleries in the Gio Ponti/ James Sudler tower, now called the North Building, have been reinstalled. Also, a raft of new site-specific pieces both inside and outside the complex will be formally unveiled. And let's not forget that just about every gallery, co-op and art center in the region will be putting on special programming to coincide with the unveiling of the Libeskind. It's enough to make an art critic head for higher ground.

All of this indicates how smart it was for the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art to have its fall shows open early. When the DAM wave hits in October, most of us will be hard-pressed to find the time to get to Boulder, but right now we have the luxury to do so. And I'm glad I did, because the three exhibitions curated by BMoCA co-director Joan Markowitz and associate curator Kirsten Gerdes are downright compelling.

"Black-Tipped Flowers From the Garden," by James 
Surls, carved wood and metal.
"Black-Tipped Flowers From the Garden," by James Surls, carved wood and metal.
"The Ming Sisters," by Betty Woodman, woodcut.
"The Ming Sisters," by Betty Woodman, woodcut.


Through October 14, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder, 303-443-2122

In the spacious West Gallery is the first of the three shows, James Surls: A Cut Above, made up of sculptures by the old hippie, who is also a famous artist. Surls made his name in the art world from his home and studio in Splendora, Texas, but in 1998, as his career was soaring, he up and moved to Basalt, Colorado. Basalt is not far from the famous Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, where Surls teaches from time to time. The move has made Surls a Colorado artist, and showing up here as a famous player has meant that his work has been seen regularly in Denver exhibits. In fact, there's a Surls installed in the Center for Visual Art as part of Decades of Influence, the joint project of the CVA and the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver.

Surls was born in Texas in 1943, and he graduated from Sam Houston Teachers College in 1965. Three years later, he got his MFA from Cranbrook Academy, one of the most respected art schools in the country. He began to show his work in the towns of east Texas in the 1970s, leading to important shows in Houston that, in turn, led to exhibits in New York and California beginning in the 1980s. Since then, his work has been widely collected and is part of the permanent collections of many museums.

The Surls sculptures at BMoCA are small to mid-sized by the artist's standards (as is the one at the CVA), but most of them make big impressions. Surls is the master of weird Dr. Seuss-y compositions in which he assembles awkward, if balanced, elements into awkward, if balanced, arrangements. His style is modernist with both surrealist and expressionistic elements, but his work also has a folk-art character, probably because flowers are his principal referent. He also employs a crude approach to carvings, which relates back to the self-taught sculptors of the mid-twentieth century, most of whom were active in the South.

The show opens with a signature piece, "Black-Tipped Flowers From the Garden," made of steel and carved bass wood and suspended from the ceiling. Almost ten feet from top to bottom, it suggests the flowers of the title, with organic forms clustered around central buckles mounted at the end of sinuous rods reminiscent of stems. By far the largest and most impressive of the Surls at BMoCA, "Black-Tipped Flowers" is the perfect piece to put at the very start of the exhibit.

Off to the left in the gallery proper is another signature Surls, "Three, Six and Eight White-Tipped Flower Too," which is closely related to the monumental "Black-Tipped Flowers" in that both reference flowers and both were done in Surls's Basalt studio in 2005.

In addition to these classic Surls, there are some unusual and unexpected pieces, none more so than "Maquette for Eye Flower," made of bent, welded and painted steel rods. The title tips us off that though the piece looks like a bouquet of flowers -- it's even approximately the same size -- there are also images of eyes hidden in the petals. "Eye Flower" looks like a three-dimensional drawing because it's so relentlessly linear, as though it were done in ink on paper instead of metal. This piece was also created in Basalt, but the show does include three that were done while Surls still lived in Texas. I have to say, the newer work is definitely better; the natural beauty of Basalt is clearly influencing his oeuvre.

In the East Gallery is Out of the Woods: Woodcut Prints From Shark¹s Ink, a showcase of work done in the past three decades at the famous Lyons-based fine-art printmaker Shark's Ink. This is an extremely strong and beautiful show, partly because of how luxurious woodcuts are by their very nature, and partly because Bud Shark, who did them, is as good a printer as anyone alive. Of course, it would all be for naught if it weren't for the highly talented artists who've worked at Shark's over the years. Woodcut prints generally reconcile opposite characteristics in that they are both tentative and bold: They are tentative because the grain of the wood comes through to the surface, breaking up the color fields, and bold because these same fields typically encompass large parts of the composition in a single, eye-catching shade.

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