James Surls’ works: ‘An unpolished beauty’
Aspen Times Weekly
CARBONDALE ” Finding James Surls’ Missouri Heights studio isn’t all that difficult. The directions aren’t tricky, and even if they were, there are not many shiny-new, 7,000-square foot metal structures in the area. Still, when I drove up recently to meet the artist at his studio, I had a small worry that Surls had not given me a street number.
As I turned into a driveway leading to the huge but otherwise unobtrusive building, I had to laugh. At the side of the dirt drive was a smattering of sculptures ” metal, all with appendages snaking out from a center. Surls’ work comes in an array of shapes, sizes and ideas; known best as a sculptor, he also frequently makes works on paper. But his core vision is remarkably identifiable, and his output as a whole amounts to variations on a theme. If Surls himself were standing at the end of the drive jumping and waving his arms, it wouldn’t have been more obvious that I’d reached the right place.
“I am proud of the fact that there is nobody else’s art that looks like mine. I want my art to be its own. You can’t say that about a lot of artists,” said the 66-year-old, whose personality is down-home and straightforward enough to be modest, but allows for no false modesty. “I’ve had really serious conversations with what I’ll call the art intellectuals who will argue the point that there is no visual alphabet, no visual language. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course there is.”
Surls’ own visual vocabulary is a subject he reflects upon constantly. And while his sculptural work can get massive and involved, he sees the essence as fairly simple, directly connected to the fundamentals of visual language.
“My art is a series of connecting points,” said Surls, who has lived in the midvalley for 11 years, and whose current residence is located a short scramble through the brush up from the new studio. “My sculptures are like lines in space, like drawings in space.”
As distinctive as the work is, there is also a subtlety, almost an effortlessness. Surls has not earned his international reputation through his personality or by making art that screams out for attention. At one point in our conversation, he mentions the phrase “pure form, void of grain,” and it seems to be an ideal that he reaches for.
“There’s a few words that come to mind immediately,” said Alleghany Meadows, a local ceramist and co-owner of the Harvey/Meadows Gallery at Aspen Highlands Village (where Surls’ work has been included in a group show), speaking of Surls’ art. “One is honesty. He tells things like they are. And in that honesty, there’s a gruffness, a hands-on thing, like you’re touching the core of beauty. But it’s an unpolished beauty.
“The work goes into the world and communicates very strongly. It’s something a wide range of people can relate to, get inspired by.”
Surls’ art is getting a wealth of exposure at the moment. Most prominent is James Surls on Park Avenue, an exhibition presented by the New York City Parks Public Art Program and the Fund for Park Avenue Sculpture Committee that features seven huge bronze and stainless steel pieces installed on the islands in the middle of Manhattan’s Park Ave., between 50th and 57th streets. The exhibit opened last month and runs through June. Coinciding with the public display are shows at two Manhattan galleries: an exhibition of new works at the Charles Cowles Gallery in Chelsea, opening next month, and a current display of small sculptures and works on paper at the Gerald Peters Gallery on the Upper East Side. On Saturday, May 2, the Grace Museum, in Abilene, Tex., opens the exhibition James Surls: From the Heartland, focusing on recent sculpture and drawings.
In Aspen, the David Floria Gallery, which represents Surls locally, has “Standing Ten flowers,” a 2008 piece priced at $130,000, displayed outside. Surls takes on the role of juror for Celebrating the Colorado Sculptor, an all-Colorado sculpture show in July at the Red Brick Center for the Arts in Aspen.
The signature element of Surls’ work is arms ” or they can be seen as branches or leaves or needles or geometric figures ” radiating out from a core. It is his way of representing growth.
“It’s organic,” said Surls, who doesn’t have the trait, frequent in visual artists, to shy away from talking about his work and its meanings. “And organic to me means it has a growth pattern ” it develops from the inside out. It’s a seed; it’s a bulb. And that’s true if you’re a flower, a seashell. It’s an inside-out growth pattern.”
Another aspect very much present in the work is duality. Surls’ materials are hard, and his methods require force and fire ” all masculine symbols. But in the flexible lines, the wispy quality to much of his work, the frequent representations of flowers, and the concern with beauty, there is much of the feminine as well. (In 2007, Surls curated an exhibition of work by Roaring Fork Valley artists for the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. The title: Finding Balance. The subtitle: Reconciling the Masculine/Feminine in Contemporary Art and Culture.) His two primary media ” sculpture and paper ” are at opposing ends of the spectrum.
“If I have a religion ” and I don’t ” it’s the eternal belief in paradox. There’s this kind of duality in existence,” said Surls, who illustrates points with references to romantic poetry, Thoreau, the astronomer Edwin Hubble, and Icelandic history. As an example of duality, he brings up the elemental substances, rock and wind: “I don’t think the wind cares about the rocks ” but they’re inseparable. The rocks move the wind; the wind shapes the rocks.”
A better example might have been the artist himself. Surls was raised in Athens, Tex., some 50 miles southeast of Dallas. His mother did some nature paintings ” his father was a carpenter ” but for the most part, his childhood was an art-free zone.
“There was no art in the house. I didn’t know anybody who had art,” said Surls. The closest thing to art in his surroundings were the Western-themed pictures that adorned the boxes that Justin cowboy boots came in. “I have seen people cut out the images from the Justin boot box and paste it on their wall.”
At a junior college in Athens, Surls studied physical education. When he moved on to San Diego State, he began to incorporate the intellectual side, and studied history while entertaining the idea of becoming an anthropologist. His path took a turn when he sidestepped the Vietnam draft by enrolling at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Texas, where he took up art. That seemed to give him direction; upon graduation, in 1965, he continued his education at Cranbrook, a leading art institution located outside of Detroit. When he left in 1968, Surls had an excellent ability to make sculpture and drawings ” but little idea how to create worthwhile, unique art.
“I could make things. I knew how to manage tools,” he said. “What I didn’t know how to do was breathe life into an object. To me, just making something that looks good ” man, that’s just not enough.”
So he muscled his way into the work. “I grew up as what you would call the son of a laboring family,” said Surls. “You went to work on Monday morning and got a paycheck on Friday. That phrase, living paycheck to paycheck ” that’s a real thing, a real way of living. That’s the context I grew up in. It had to do with hard work ” if you worked hard, you could make it. Well, I worked hard.
“But hard work in itself ” Calvinists proved you could just work hard and not make it.”
Surls too seemed like he too might prove that point. There was plenty of labor, and little that distinguished his art. He recalls a conversation he had with Billy Gibbons, the ZZ Top guitarist, about another musician who had all the chops but could never break past a certain low level of success.
“My analogy was, if you’re going to get in the big leagues, it’s a given that you can throw the ball and hit the ball and run the bases,” said Surls. “But that only gets you in the game. It doesn’t make you a star.
“It’s true in science, [and with] musicians. They really, really, really develop the self and they block out all the rest. It’s not that they’re not influenced by other musicians, or don’t know what else is going on. But it’s like, their symbols become their own. And you recognize it.”
Surls had enough of a resume to work his way into a teaching position at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. There he discovered the spark he needed to make the leap into true artistry. The spark began with the course itself: Material and Concepts, an introductory class in which students had to develop big-minded ideas about materials. “I was struggling for direction. And the class was based on trying to find that,” he said.
More significant in helping him find his way was one of his students, Charmaine Locke. A senior in the psychology department, Locke was a fish out of water among the arts-minded kids in the class.
“I would read her papers and say, Oh my god, who did this?” said Surls. “It was like waking me up, ringing my bell. She was making things that really had meaning, but she had no skill in physicality. But it was art with high intent. Her intentions were not only honorable, they were specific and clear. And I wanted that in my own art.”
The two became a couple and, not coincidentally, Surls surged as an artist. In 1973, he wrote in a sketchbook that, within a year, he would be offered a show in a major museum ” an unrealistic dream at that point. But putting it down in writing pushed him to create work that might impress a curator ” and sure enough, when the director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston came to Surls’ studio, he offered the artist a show on the spot.
“I think it was because I had a body of work sitting there, ready to go,” said Surls. “The idea of being ready ” that’s a big thing.”
But Locke was a bigger thing. “Charmaine brought something to my art life, and personal life, that I did not have,” said Surls, who is married to Locke, and has four daughters with her. (He also has three older daughters.) “You’ve got brawn and brains. Now I had a muse, an inspiration, a source that fed something into my soul that was not there. I could saw, weld, lift, hone, all those physical things ” and do them well. But just being able to do those things well will not make you a great artist.
“Now I’m asking ‘why’ questions: ‘What is it for? What does it mean? What does it symbolize?’ The answers to those questions have to be absorbed and soaked in and penetrate who you are. My personal language came out of that.”
There is at least one more major factor in Surls’ development, this one geographic. In 1976, he and Locke moved to Splendora, a small town in the heavily wooded area of southeast Texas known as the Big Thicket.
“We moved out to a place that, to get to, you went over a dirt road, across a bridge, through these woods,” said Surls. “We lived in a forest, almost a storybook place. And that wasn’t by accident.” Adding to the fairy tale quality, their house had one room, which they used as a studio. Cooking was done outdoors; they slept on the porch.
Surls’ thinking on exactly how nature and art are entwined has changed over time ” it is a subject that seems to be at the front of his mind ” but it is clear that the natural world has been one of his greatest influences, thanks to the Splendora environment.
“We lived in trees. We were engulfed in trees. And green,” Surls said of Splendora, where he still owns a 12,000-square foot studio ” “my dream studio,” he calls it ” that is currently rented out to a concert promoter. “I always thought of us as living in a green envelope. It was filled with holly trees and magnolia trees and pines, and it’s green all year. I wrote poems all the time about how you can physically get into that.”
As deep in the woods as he was, he never forsook the idea of community. In 1979, Surls founded Lawndale, an alternative space in Houston’s Museum District, and ran it for several years. Lawndale ” still in existence, though without Surls’ participation ” features exhibitions, music performances and more. Surls fondly recalls when the L.A. punk band Black Flag played there.
In 1998, Surls and Locke, wanting to give their daughters a more sophisticated environment, relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley. Splendora, he said in a 2004 interview with The Aspen Times, 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.”
Here, too, he has worked his way into the community. He has contributed to such local initiatives as a chair-lift design project in Snowmass Village and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s annual auction, with the Red Brick sculpture show coming up. In 2006, he loaned the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet a sculpture; the company commissioned choreographer Nicolo Fonte to create a dance around the piece. Of “Finding Balance,” the exhibition he curated using all Roaring Fork Valley artists, he says, “I can’t tell you how important I think it is.”
“James is deeply invested in having a healthy art community,” said Meadows, the local ceramist/gallerist. “When he has a vision, he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Surls is in the midst of one of his busier times, with three exhibits in New York, the museum show in Texas, and the curatorial assignment in Aspen. But early next month, he plans to go to Grand Junction for a warehouse show presented by students at Mesa State College. He can’t pass on a low-budget, alternative, multi-media, grassroots happening like that.
“That’s the can-do attitude. It’s something you have to totally do on your own,” he said. “It’s mastering the make-do idiom. You take what you’ve got, come to the realization that that’s what you’ve got to work with, and you’re going to make it the best thing possible.
“That’s the basic ground rule for art. That’s what artists do.”
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