James Surls: ‘Finding Balance’
December 8, 2006
Asepn, CO ColoradoJames Surls, a product of the buttoned-down 1950s and of the rugged region of East Texas known as the Big Thicket, experienced a male-dominated upbringing. Adulthood, however, changed that drastically, as Surls married three times – for the last 27 years to Charmaine Locke – and came to have seven children, all daughters.
The feminine presence has taken a strong hold.”Having seven daughters – having one daughter – will change your complexion,” said the renowned artist. “At least it should.”Some two years ago, Surls was invited by the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft to have an exhibit of his work there. Surls was already scheduled for a show in Houston, and countered that he’d be happy to curate a show for the Center instead. Surls had two things in mind: one, that the show would consist of work from artists of the Roaring Fork Valley, which has been his home since the late 1990s; the other, that a catalog be made of the exhibit. Sara Morgan, director of the Center, agreed, leaving one more matter to be resolved: What would be the theme of the show? For Surls, it was an easy call.”If I have an opportunity to do anything I want, what will it be?” he said. “I went for that old haunt in my psyche, that old male-female imbalance that’s there in the world. I said, that’s the thematic thread.””Finding Balance: Reconciling the Masculine/Feminine in Contemporary Art and Culture” examines issues of gender in art and the bigger world. The exhibit, which opened in October in Houston and runs through Jan. 14, and the catalog, distributed by the University of Texas Press, features the work of 11 valley artists: Brad Miller, Barbara Sorensen, Monica Chau, Pamela Joseph, Brian Reid, Jody Guralnick, Linda Girvin, James Baker and Robert Brinker, as well as Surls and Locke. (Chau, Reid and Baker have since moved away from the valley.) The book includes an introduction by Locke, and essays by Surls by Leonard Shlain (“The Recalibration of Gender Relations”), who has written previously about art and gender.
Surls said that the theme of “Finding Balance” wasn’t merely a reflection of his personal interests; the male/female issue is in the air all around him. Last week, he was at a dinner where former Aspen Mayor John Bennett described a recent forum he had attended in New York City, with 125 Muslim women addressing the subject of gender. “This is a topic really in the foreground,” said Surls, at his Missouri Heights studio with grand views of the midvalley. “I didn’t put the topic at the apex of our time. It’s just there. And it is, I think, the most important issue of our age. There is something – the spirit of our age, the most important thing we can ask of ourselves. This is it. It could solve a lot of issues of our time.”Solving the artistic issue – Could Surls find artists in the Roaring Fork Valley whose art actually did examine issues of gender? – proved remarkably easy. The starting point was in his very own house, where Locke had sculptures of quintessentially female figures, as well as a variety of vessels, an iconic artistic representation of femininity.Additional examples of vessels were easy to come by. There were Sorensen’s stoneware and stone vessels, which Surls turned into hanging pieces for the exhibit, and Guralnick’s multimedia piece “At the Table,” which prominently featured ceramic vases, some of them broken.Several of the artists address gender without using vessels. Joseph’s series – titled “The Hundred Headless Women” – featured high heels, nudity, bras and, above all, women in various states of decapitation. Chau’s “I Ching, Forest of Steles” speaks, according to Surls, of “Chinese history, and how the females were not listed, not registered. And how the males get all the good shit, psychologically and otherwise.” Girvin’s 3-D photograph “Tight Pull” – “one of the greatest works I’ve seen,” said Surls – is a pile of women’s bodies, all in above-the-knee dresses. The male artists, too, made art that raised questions of male and female. Miller’s stoneware piece “Holding” is vessel-like in shape. Reid’s “Hourglass” is a bed, pictured in the catalog with side-by-side pillows. One of Brinker’s print works is “The Other First Kiss,” which hints at the earliest risings of sexuality.
And there is Surls himself, represented here by the mahogany, oak and steel sculpture “From the Heart.” The piece starts with a blood-red vessel, from which grows Surls signature shapely branch of wood, topped by a self-portrait in steel wire.”The blood pitcher connects to the ‘wise blood,’ the ‘feminine river,'” said Surls. “The vessel is a feminine figure; mine is red, round, full, voluptuous.” The piece, he concluded, was “a self-portrait, about coming from this feminine history.”Male imbalanceWhile we were driving from Surls’ home to Carbondale, so he could pick up his youngest daughter, Molly, a high school student, I asked Surls to specify exactly why male/female issues were so significant at the moment. He told me about a recent googling exercise undertaken by his wife. Locke’s searches involved the word “atrocity,” and every hit was linked to a male.Surls says he has drawn two conclusions about the big-picture state of the world. One is that men – from Cain to George W. Bush – tilt far too much in favor of violence as a means of expression. The other is that society – from the U.S. to Afghanistan, from Adam and Eve to Tom and Katie – is tilted far too much in favor of the male.”This was said 4,000 years ago, that men and nations go to war for territory and revenge,” said Surls, while driving to pick up his youngest daughter, Molly, from high school in Carbondale. “But you can take out ‘nation’ and make it ‘men.’ Because men go to war. All the reasons for fighting in the 20th century were male reasons, alpha-dog reasons. It’s a man’s world in that sense.”
As for the other conclusion, Surls said that “even in the Middle East, but certainly in the West, in the great religions, God is referred to as a male. So you’ve just stepped on a hundred million toes. If God is called ruler, master, is given domain, then he is the boss. Now we’re talking about power, on the basis of being male. That’s a huge, giant, colossal issue.”My next question was, what does an art exhibit and a catalog do to scale back male dominance of society, and his propensity for war? His answer was simultaneously realistic and hopeful.”You’re not going to change that,” he said. “But as a philosophical reality, it’s time to address it. It’s a major issue with major ramifications for humanity.”You don’t resolve that with an art show. People aren’t going to come in and suddenly the world’s going to be balanced. But you do what you can do.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org