Art Review

Review: All I Ever Wanted: James Surls and Charmaine Locke Displays Togetherness

One of the things that the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center consistently does well is dedicate exhibits to significant regional artists. The current case in point is All I Ever Wanted: James Surls and Charmaine Locke, a show featuring work by artists who live in the Roaring Fork Valley, near Aspen, and have been together for forty years. Though they have only rarely worked collaboratively, each regards the other as a source of inspiration.

James Surls was already a famous artist when he and Charmaine Locke moved to Colorado in 1997 from his home state of Texas. Surls had lived in Michigan for a few years in the 1960s, when he earned his MFA at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art, but he quickly returned to the Lone Star State, where, in the 1970s, he began to exhibit his work widely and quickly established himself as a major talent.
This handsome, ambitious exhibit was organized by Joy Armstrong, the CSFAC curator of modern and contemporary art. She originally intended to focus exclusively on Surls, by far the better known of the two, but the couple wanted to exhibit together — and once Armstrong saw Locke’s pieces, she decided to showcase the work of both. She also decided to chiefly feature pieces that the artists have done since moving to Colorado, as opposed to earlier work done in Texas (though there is more than one exception to that rule). Therefore the show is not a retrospective, but instead a thematically organized duet, with the artists’ distinct yet compatible pieces displayed in Armstrong’s elegant, intelligently designed exhibition.

It starts on the ground level, in the broad corridor running from the CSFAC’s original lobby to its new one.
Mounted on the wall opposite the windows that open to the courtyard is a breathtaking signature bas-relief by Surls, “Large Wall Flower.” The gigantic, complex piece has a profusion of painted steel tubes meandering out from a central point that’s attached to the wall, with each tube branching out into multiples as they run across the wall. The resulting stems terminate in highly abstracted flowers suggested by three club-like wood carvings evocative of petals radiating from the end of each stem. A similar though smaller shape is set at the dead center of each, positioned so that it’s standing out straight. Finally, three wooden balls like a flower’s seeds are placed around the standing form, arranged so that they alternate with the petal shapes.

The piece, which measures over twenty feet long, is spectacular and lays out a number of the artist’s concerns. Like much of his work, it involves abstracting or conventionalizing natural subjects. This theme is reinforced by his chosen materials — wood and metal — that are fairly standard for his oeuvre. The materials inevitably result in a muted palette comprising the light golden color of the raw, unstained wood and the dark browns or grays of the painted or bare metal parts.

On the way to the show proper, on the second floor, viewers pass under a related Surls, “It’s Not About the Numbers.” This piece, suspended above the base of the grand staircase, is a rendition of a sprig of flowers accented by skeletal geometric shapes.
Through the glass doors at the top of the stairs is the first of the Locke pieces: “Inner House,” which dates to the couple’s time in Texas — though Armstrong points out that it was reconstructed specially for this show. “Inner House” takes the shape of a domed hut, reminiscent of a hive. The exterior is carried out in short lengths of wood covered with a skim coat of white paint used to unify the continuous surface; the floor inside is covered with flat stones, and at the center is a wok piled high with saffron-colored beeswax. The installation is obviously meant to signify home and hearth, but given the work’s title, it apparently symbolizes the soul, as well.

There are three large galleries to the right, the first anchored by a stunning tour de force by Surls, “From the Pitcher.” This multiple-component installation is the apotheosis of a tabletop still life, since it’s been blown up to an enormous size. On a mammoth, hand-hewn wooden table is a huge wood-and-metal sculpture depicting a three-dimensional skeletal outline of an old-fashioned pitcher with a bouquet of flowers in it. Scattered across the tabletop, in a seemingly random way, are small abstract and conventionalized sculptures made of wood. The relationship of the exaggeratedly tall pitcher to the exaggeratedly long table allows Surls to play a trick with scale, making the enormous table seem lower than it is.

Hanging on the dark walls around “From the Pitcher” are some of Locke’s paintings that employ a skim-coat technique similar to the one used in “Inner House.” Large boards are coated with a thin layer of pigment, and then in some, linear or other marks in the same color are applied on top, establishing subtle patterns. In these minimalist-meets-Monet paintings, Locke appropriates the grains of the wood from the underlying panels and uses them as lines in patterns that show through the paint, becoming key factors in the compositions.
The adjacent gallery includes some sculptures and other works by Surls, but Locke dominates this space with a trio of identical monumental bronze sculptures with a rich blue-green patina from her “Open Book” series. These standing female figures broadly refer to Hindu deities in that they each have six arms and their hands hold evocative objects, notably an open book. They also have three heads each, which have been detailed in a crude and primitive way — in contrast to the fine detailing of the figures themselves. Locke is interested in psychology and spirituality as much as she is in art, which explains why she can simultaneously embrace such aesthetic polar opposites: simple abstract paintings on one end, complex figurative sculptures on the other.
In the final gallery, the reason that Surls and Locke are showing together at this point in their lives is revealed, as is the meaning of the title All I Ever Wanted. In the center of the space, Locke’s “Journey” lies on a low stand close to the floor. The installation is a lineup of enigmatic objects, both found and created, as well as drawings, with several of the items evoking vessels — in particular, boats and vases. All of the parts are placed within a large sheet of paper; it’s meant to suggest the journey through life. On the surrounding walls are drawings by both artists, but most significantly, on one wall is a love poem that Surls has composed for Locke. The poem, which looks back over their relationship, has Surls viewing Locke as his guide through life; it opens and closes with the same line: “All I ever really wanted was to go home with you.”

Surls is in his seventies, and as he reveals in this poem, he feels he owes a substantial debt to Locke for the successes of his life and career. Surely that debt is partly satisfied by this tremendous opportunity — via CSFAC curator Armstrong — to show Locke’s intriguing work next to his.

All I Ever Wanted, through January 15 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, 1-719-634-5581,
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia