John Henry makes an impact with his work. No, not the guy with the hammer. He made an impact, too, but he was a different John Henry. Our John Henry is a Tennessee-based sculptor and the curator of "Under Azure Skies," the current Sarasota Season of Sculpture exhibition. He's a steel-driving man in his own right. We spoke with him recently. Here's an excerpt from our conversation.
What's the main guiding principle behind your sculpture selections?
I think I select pieces for different reasons than most curators. I want honesty. I want artists who speak with their own voices. I’m very concerned with individuality. So much contemporary sculpture looks the same. We’re seeing fewer personal statements. We’re seeing fewer pieces that make any statement — period. Instead, we're seeing pieces that need to be explained. You need to read a block of text before you see the artwork.
Right. You've got the "artist's statement" like a decoder ring.
In terms of sculpture, the art should be its own statement. The art should stand on its own. That's what I strive for, both in my own work and the work I select. I'm very interested in artists who make strong, personal statements. When I say "statement," I don't mean message. You understand the distinction?
I think so. A work of sculpture is not an editorial cartoon. I say this as a cartoonist, so that's not a put-down. But the kind of sculpture you're looking for isn't a delivery system for a conceptual message.
No. Your work doesn't have to be about something. It's about itself. It's art that exists in the now. With that in mind, I look for sculptors who make strong individual statements. Some of the best sculptors in the world fit into that category.
Mark di Suvero, Richard Serra, Beverly Pepper, to name a few. Their work is unmistakable and very personal. You can look at any one of their pieces and know they did it in a single glance.
Yeah, around Sarasota, Jack Cartlidge's sculpture comes to mind — but let me get back to the Sarasota Season of Sculpture. Tell us about some of the artists making strong personal statements at this exhibition.
Well, for example, John Clement who’s a young artist — I mean he’s not so young anymore, but I still think of him as a young artist.
I'm sure he wouldn’t mind.
He lives in New York where he builds pieces — he juxtaposes sections of circles in very interesting ways. His art changes drastically as you walk around it and see it from different angles.
So there isn’t one preferred viewpoint.
That’s right. It's like seeing several sculptural pieces, depending on your point of view. The changes are very dramatic. Albert Paley's work is also very strong. He's very well known in the craft world, but in recent years he's been dealing more and more with sculpture and less and less with furniture.
How would you describe his work?
You would think he turns steel into paper. His pieces weigh thousands of pounds, but he makes them seem weightless. His pieces look like folded pieces of paper that drift and lean into each other like they've blown together in the breeze. It's like origami, made out of steel.
Bret Price's piece “Oh'd" also caught my eye. It seemed much more solid — a series of crescent-shaped steel forms.
Here again, what Bret does is a very different from Albert.
Albert’s pieces are fabricated. In other words, Albert will take flat sheets of metal, then bend them to give it that ripple effect. Then he welds these sheets together.
OK. Paley's pieces are constructions. It's a structural approach.
Right. Bret works very differently. He starts out with steel beams and then welds them together. He'll take off-the-shelf steel shapes, then heat them and bend them and twist them like ribbons. There's much more manipulation.
Chakaia Booker's untitled piece also got my attention — a butterfly form made out of pieces of shredded tires.
Well, she does use old tires. She cuts them up and then drills holes in the pieces and fastens them together with screws and bolts. She builds these constructions that take on a different life. It's obviously not a tire when she's done with it!
She’s transformed the material.
Chakaia’s quite a genius at it. But they all are – and these sculptors all take different approaches to their materials. Some weld metal; some bolt pieces together. Some chip away; some aggregate material together. Sculpture offers infinite possibilities for personal expression. I’ve offered just a few of them in this exhibition.
And that’s the “statement” you were talking about.
Or ten different statements.
The material is the message?
In a sense. Or ... the material is the statement. I'd rather put it that way.
Sure. A good sculptor speaks through physical material — through the way they transform the raw stuff they start out with. That's how we talk to you. And we never say the same thing, not if our work is honest. If I succeeded, no two pieces look the same. The art you’ll see is as individual as the artists who created it.
If people see the variety of pieces in the exhibition, I think they'll understand my motivation. To curate a show like this, I look for strong, personal statements, and work that's put together in different ways using different materials. The imagery is radically different from piece to piece. I hope you'll see it for yourself.
That's the only way to see it. I plan to — and hope our readers will, too.
John Henry's sculpture is on exhibit at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art. Henry's "Complexus" is also part of the current Sarasota Season of Sculpture exhibition. Docent tours of this year's outdoor art show will be announced on the Sarasota Season of Sculpture website.