Strength, nuance carved in stone Art: Jon Isherwood's stone sculptures are abstract art in its purest form

Fine Arts

June 16, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Even after a century of abstract art, the viewer tends to try to find suggestions of representation in abstract work. Jon Isherwood's fine stone sculptures at the C. Grimaldis Gallery serve as a good case in point.

The sculptures don't depict anything. The artist leaves some of the sides of his stone slabs in their natural state, smooths and polishes others, makes striation-like cuts, often hollows them out so that one can peer into a vertical interior space but not penetrate it.

As worked pieces of stone, they fully satisfy the demands of sculpture. They invite perusal for their contrasts of surface texture, the way they receive and reflect light, their gradations of color, the interplay between mass and void and between what they retain of their natural state and the evidence of human manipulation.

One can even ascribe to them such human qualities as dignity and aspiration without violating their abstractness, for dignity itself is an abstract quality, not an object.

It's impossible, however, to look at these works and not see some indications of the visual world. The larger sculptures such as "The Prodigious Builder" and "The Ancient Ones," in their verticality and their mass inevitably suggest both human form and architectural columns. Cuts or holes can recall features -- an eye, a nose, a mouth. A glimpse into the interior of a hollowed-out piece can bring to mind some great hall or a sheer cliff of immense height.

From one vantage point, "The Prodigious Builder" resembles Auguste Rodin's great sculpture of Honore Balzac, though not so much as Isherwood's own piece called "Balzac" in an earlier show here. "Cup of Youth" might almost be an architectural model of a building with a cave-like entrance.

But in the end it's best to put aside the search for visual references. The integrity of Isherwood's sculpture lies not in what it can be said to "look like," but in what it is -- a successful collaboration between man and nature that has produced an art of strength and nuance.

The C. Grimaldis Gallery, at 523 N. Charles St., is open 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. The Isherwood show runs through July 5.

Calder's joyful mobiles

Alexander Calder made abstract art move by creating the mobile. That was a revolutionary thing to do. Calder (1898-1976) lived in a century when avant-garde art tended to please an elite rather than the public at large. But the whole world loves Calder's works, because while they're unquestionably serious art they're also accessible and happy.

The impressive Calder retrospective at Washington's National Gallery runs through July 12, and tomorrow at 9 p.m. Maryland Public Television will air a delightful hour-long American Masters documentary on Calder.

It was produced and directed for WNET in New York by Roger Sherman, whose documentary subjects have ranged from the Brooklyn Bridge to AIDS to Robert F. Kennedy. With Calder he had ideal subject matter: an art that's universally loved, created by a happy, generous, good man.

The hour traces Calder's career through early wire portrait sculptures, an entire miniature circus that he developed into a performance piece, the mobiles that are his greatest works and the huge public sculptures called stabiles.

One could wish to see more than a couple of minutes of the 1953 film of his circus performance, because it's so much fun. And the mobiles are shown too fleetingly. These things live in time, and there should be a view of at least one of the great ones that lasts more than a few seconds.

But this is one art program the whole family will enjoy. It's especially strong on quotes about Calder and his work. "He redefined what sculpture was, could possibly be and now is," says Arne Glimcher of Pace Wildenstein Gallery. "A mobile is a little private celebration," said philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. "Calder creates a world in which there is no evil," says art critic Mark Stevens. And playwright Arthur Miller makes the best comment on Calder's work. "You just feel better for having stared at it for a while."

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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