by Judith Taylor
The contemplative nature of contemporary sculpture is to a large degree driven by the language of silence. Artists meld form and material seamlessly to create objects that engage and spark our curiosity.
Christine Finkelstein, in her article “Studying Contemporary Sculpture” (Sculpture magazine) reinforces this idea of contemplation when she says, “Looking at sculpture, especially freestanding works, takes place over a matter of time, which adds a unique quality to the viewing experience.”
This experience involves relationships. I am particularly fascinated with the compositional connect between the object and its surround, and how the sculptor uses voids and negative spaces to connect the two. Undulating lines and changing angles suggest movement, while evocative patterns cast shadows and illusions take hold of our imagination. Such is the magic of contemporary sculpture.
Finkelstein goes on to discuss sculpture in terms of the rapid changes that occurred in the last half of the twentieth century. “Subject matter was suppressed, the figure abandoned, and emphasis was placed on the art object itself. Artists of creative genius broke boundaries and made way for numerous innovative developments. Beginning in the 1950s, artists embraced industrial materials and techniques as part of a bold sculptural language, choosing to reject traditional methods of casting or modeling. Consequently, an unprecedented partnership was formed between artist and industry.”
This “bold sculptural language” is the focal point for the juried exhibition Speaking Silence, hosted by Gallery Shoal Creek. Organized in collaboration with the Texas Sculpture Group, 18 individual works give voice to the range of materials and techniques that define contemporary sculpture. On the following pages, aether profiles three of the artists whose work will be on view in the exhibition— Jason Mehl, Elizabeth Akamatsu and Paul Seeman—and talks with them about the themes that run through their work.
Jason Mehl spent the better part of a decade exploring the world while creating art. With a degree in Environmental Science, he traveled the vanishing wildernesses of North America seeking natural areas—areas with silence and solitude— places where dynamic forces create intriguing patterns over time. After living in South Korea for five years, Mehl closed his Seoul studio and returned to Dallas in 2013 with a full shipping container of work. Today, he lives and works in a former foundry building in Dallas now used by a group of artists as workshop and foundry for their own work.
It has been said that “rocks are the bones of the world,” and from this idea emerged the art form of Gonshi (Korean) or Suiseki (Japanese). These are small, naturally formed stones admired for their beauty and for their power to suggest a scene from nature. Mehl’s work embraces a similar reverence for natural forms as he “creates ambiguous, composite work based on the intuitive geometry of nature.” His sculpting is a cyclic process of addition and subtraction based on keen observation and rooted in a clear understanding of how natural forces produce and alter forms. He relishes the idea that each piece “reveals itself through often unexpected discoveries.”
Thematically, A Language Older than Words—a linear form that floats on an upward angle—is representative of Mehl’s core focus: erosion in nature and the impact that manufactured spaces have on a fragile environment. Rendered in bronze, the crusty surface angles upward, hinting at what might have been, and crescendos with a dramatic end point. The languages of erosion, decay and growth guide the artist as he establishes balance, shadow lines and ratios of positive and negative areas—almost as if the sculpture was a found object. Photographed in a desert environment, the form and the surround become one, emphasizing the full intent of Jason Mehl’s expressive work. Plans are on the drawing board to translate A Language Older than Words into a large-scale, outdoor piece that is certain to make a most powerful statement.
“I am an object maker. I have an aesthetic that reflects my Japanese heritage.” Born in Japan, Elizabeth Akamatsu grew up in Southern California surrounded by orange groves and eucalyptus trees, where she developed a great love for nature that has had a significant impact on her work.
She talked of her process, saying, “Sometimes I start with an idea. I’ll objectify it out of a raw material such as steel, bronze or wood. At other times, I’ll start with a found object, such as an exceptionally beautiful branch, which I then incorporate into a sculpture to create a piece that is uniquely mine. This process of creating can occur in a moment or take months to come to fruition.”
The complexity of identity, like nature, is one of several themes that play out in Akamatsu’s work. “Like all females growing up and living in a male- dominated society, who I am is formed by our conceived notions of what it means to be a woman. My work serves as a forum for questions that I feel compelled to examine and address.”
The needle is one of the oldest and simplest of tools. In lore and literature, it has often been used metaphorically to symbolize womanhood and women’s desire to nurture and hold together the family unit. The needle—the idea of sewing— suggests secure bonds, a certain permanence. In contrast, “pins” denote girlhood and the transitional nature of growing up.
Akamatsu’s intriguing sculpture titled The Needle’s Eye presents a range of associative meanings, all the while leaving a sense of vagueness that insists we complete the narrative in our own voice. The intertwining needles—suggestive of male and female sexuality—emerge as a fertility symbol, bringing universality to the simplicity of the form. The sculpture is also suggestive of the “all seeing eye” or “window to the soul.” Suddenly, a simple, ageless form carved from wood and covered in a layer of encaustic becomes a complex, expressive object confirming that Akamatsu’s work is both current and contemporary.
Fire dances in Paul Seeman’s art world. Trained in structural welding, he discovered the meditative properties of molten metal while making straight, strong welds. All along, he studied the way the molten metal moved, which led to his discovery of what he calls “doodling with metal.” From there the evolution to becoming an artist began. The doodling led to line, form, shape and motion. Completely by accident, he had fallen into a love affair of metal and art. Paul has been “dancing with metal” ever since.
Living in South Texas, Seeman is concerned with the impact of the energy industry on community. Gateway to Texas is a thought-provoking piece made of circular, laminated strips of wood suspended on an assemblage of pipes. The work conveys the artist’s deep belief that, while industry leaves its mark on the land, it affects communities and people the most. The work combines stripped wood—cedar and pine—with sections of discarded industrial pipe, one a drill pipe. The wood element of the sculpture represents the small communities that profit from cyclical oil booms, yet are abandoned, left to dry up, when the bust comes. The shadows cast from the piece loom both literally and figuratively emphasizing the lasting, often negative, effects of the industry.
A range of media came into Seeman’s artistic world while he was working towards his Fine Arts degree at Texas State University–San Marcos, where Roger Colombik was his mentor. Formal training was Paul’s road to becoming a well-rounded artist, something that he believes is important to being an artist. Seeman is currently in his last year in the MFA Sculpture program at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi, studying under Jack Gorn and Greg Reuter. All three professors are members of the Texas Sculpture Group and speak to the positive influence and mentoring opportunities that seasoned, accomplished members can have on young aspiring sculptors.