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Born again … and again … and again

Stewart Oksenhorn

Most everything about the new James Surls exhibit at the David Floria Gallery describes a transition. The exhibit, which opens with a reception for the local artist on Thursday, Dec. 30, from 6-8 p.m., is titled “Between the Old & the New.” Prominent among the new pieces is “Diamonds on the Bridge,” a work in bronze that features Surls’ familiar diamond-shaped figure stuck into a bridge.

As Surls notes, “I think any time you’re dealing with bridges, you’re dealing with transition. You’re trying to get somewhere.”Transition, though, does not seem an obvious subject for Surls to be wrestling with at the moment. At 62, he has long been established as one of the most prominent sculptors of his time. In the adoring way he speaks of Charmaine Locke, his wife and fellow artist of several decades, you sense a definite stability on the home front. The couple has four daughters – and Surls has three more grown daughters – which means a certain measure of inescapable turmoil. But the girls are old enough that Surls is hardly reeling from the realities of new parenthood. And while the family’s relocation from rural east Texas to Missouri Heights was a sea change to say the least, that move is seven years old – certainly enough time to adjust to the altitude and attitude.But Surls is possessed of a complex mind – one that seems constantly in motion, relating art to poetry, personal history to public affairs (and one that belies his redneck bearing and background). Transition for Surls is not necessarily connected to life-altering events, but is a continuous state of being, so terms like “time windows” and “rebirth” seem natural in describing the work.

“In the big, broad general picture of the world, someone’s always in a state of birth,” said Surls at the Floria Gallery, where he was in the process of unpacking the work: bronze sculptures and pencil drawings that date from 1977 to 2004. “But once you deal with it personally, not in any religious sense, but when you’re born again, you reach a point in adulthood, maybe you’re 30, when you say, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? Why am I doing this? How can I deal with this stuff on a better level?'”Thirty is a good distance back in Surls’ rearview mirror, but over the last two years, he has had good reason to take account of his personal history. In September, the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston will open “The Splendora Years,” a 20-year retrospective on Surls’ work between 1977 to 1997, when he was living in Splendora, Texas. (The exhibit, Surls notes with satisfaction, is to be curated by Terry Sultan, a prominent curator and the sister of artist Donald Sultan.) So Surls has spent a good chunk of the last two years surveying and reassessing his work, and measuring the distance between 1977, when he moved from Dallas to Splendora, and the present.”I’ve been delving into my personal past, a period that’s gone,” he said. “It flowered, it blossomed, it bloomed, it died. So the idea of being ready to be reborn – I’ve come to a starting point in my personal history.”

Leading up to the retrospective in Houston, Surls has taken the opportunity to make an interim stop with the current exhibit, which runs through Jan. 30. The show tends to demonstrate how the issue of rebirth is a constant one for Surls. “Between the Old and the New” features a new edition of his 1977 wood sculpture, “On Being Ready to be Born,” made soon after he settled in Splendora. The updated version is in bronze and, in a departure for Surls, is in a series of five. (The decision to make a series of the work, he explained, comes not only from having three children in college, but also to fill a void in the art world.) The piece – consisting of a solid block that serves as a foundation, eyes cut into that foundation, plus a limb that reaches skyward – is intended to symbolize a house. The limb represents a reaching out for the good life that Surls finds in home and family life. “The eyes give the house life,” Surls explained. “The bulbousness – that’s what pregnancy is, a round shape that has been imbued with life and is fixing to put something on the horizon – a birth of a child, or a dream. It’s something coming down the pike.” And the limb that extends outside the base shows that life is not confined to the home, but moves into a bigger community. “You go from the cradle to the room to the house to the town.”

In two of the drawings – “Body Language” and “Her Mystery,” both from 2003, Surls explores the female form, another favorite theme. The two-dimensional realm seems an appropriate medium to suit the subject. “It’s the female form, about fluidity,” he said. “In a painting, I can put the female form in the liquid world, in full form.”A third drawing, however, represents another direction. “Snow White,” a new, large drawing, uses a spiked, flowery shape that is often visited in Surls’ sculpture. But in the drawing, Surls has densely clustered the shapes into the landscape. It imitates, he said, the look of a whiteout as seen through a car windshield.A raging, disorienting snowstorm is not the kind of sight Surls would have been accustomed to in Splendora – 40 miles northeast of Houston, and part of the wooded region known as the Big Thicket. So “Snow White” indicates that Surls has finally settled into his latest incarnation – his latest rebirth – as a Coloradan. Yes, it has been seven years since the move to the Roaring Fork Valley. But it was a big move, and one with which Surls is only now feeling fully comfortable.

“You change your house, it changes you,” he said. “It wasn’t easy moving here. We had our house in Architectural Digest; I had a 12,000-square-foot studio. We had our dream come true. And we walked away from our dream, and that was huge.”Surls says there were many reasons to move. Of those, the one he chose to detail was that he wanted his family to have a more sophisticated environment. Splendora, he said, was “a lowbrow neighborhood, a throw-your-trash-in-the-ditch neighborhood. It’s the South, and there’s not a lot of big-picture thinking there.”He doesn’t say that uprooting himself and his family was a means of causing rebirth. But it probably was.

“Birth is a constant thing,” said Surls. “I’m as much in a state of birth today as I was in 1977. I just got settled, to tell you the truth. From 1997, it was just last week that I finally felt, here I am.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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