Hands-on marble carving? That's not Isherwood's way

ART

Artist starts with clay to make his large-scale sculptures

September 13, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A key to Jon Isherwood's alluring, large-scale abstract stone sculptures at C. Grimaldis Gallery lies in the fascinating video installation set up in the rear gallery that suggests the sources of this British-born artist's inspiration.

Isherwood makes emotive, vessel-like and architectural forms of striking freshness and technical polish. Some of the pieces resemble gourds or roughly hewn wine flasks, while others recall the swelling female forms of Stone Age sculpture.

The pieces, carved from richly veined marbles in various colors, are scored on their surfaces with intricate swirling patterns and writhing curlicues that create a palpable impression of motion despite their heavy immobility. Most have an undeniably majestic presence that charges the space around them with energy.

The video installation is not so much a documentary of Isherwood's method as it is a metaphor for his creative process. It consists of a small table piled with mounds of white sand. Above the table, a ceiling-mounted video projector casts images of the artist's hands and fingers swirling through images of sand that exactly overlap the real-life mounds on the table. The result is an uncanny optical illusion that cleverly conflates art and reality.

The installation is a kind of philosophical meditation on the tactile process of creating shapes and volumes that animates Isherwood's art. The rhythmic, undulating lines and volumetric shapes that Isherwood's hands trace in the video correspond more or less exactly to those of his finished marbles.

Not surprisingly, however, the actual techniques employed in producing his distinctive sculptures are considerably more complicated.

Isherwood begins by modeling forms in clay, working through the same sort of tactile intuition the video suggests.

But rather than translate his clay forms into marble, he creates molds from them. From the molds he extracts plaster-cast replicas, which he then scans into a computer to produce three-dimensional digital files.

The digital files are run through a fabrication program that controls an automated lathe. It's the computer-controlled tool that carves the marble blocks. Afterward, the artist adds the finishing touches and polishes the work by hand.

It may come as a surprise to some viewers that these elegant works are mostly machine-made rather than hand-crafted in the venerable tradition of the stone-cutter's art. Yet the pieces achieve a precision of form and finish that would be nearly impossible to achieve by traditional methods (the digital fabrication programs also allow the works to be more readily enlarged and translated more accurately from one medium to another).

This is a show of stunning visual effects and bravura technique that exploits today's most advanced fabrication processes.

As a final fillip, the exhibition features a couple of lovely acrylic- and wax-on-paper drawings derived from rubbings of the sculptures' jewel-like surfaces.

The drawings are not literal renderings of the sculptures but rather independent works whose origins spring from the same order of tactile imagination as their three-dimensional inspirations.

The show runs through Oct. 1. The gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Call 410-539-1080.

An optimistic view

Many of the characters in Juliet Gilden's whimsical paintings and prints at 2 Hot Art Chicks, the diminutive but cozy gallery that opened in Hampden this year, bear a striking resemblance to the artist herself - be they slender, redheaded young women with languorous blue eyes, or fanciful, anthropomorphic renditions of creatures from the animal kingdom such as goldfish and giraffes.

Gilden's expressive mis-en-scenes remind one of the imaginative intelligence found in the illustrations for good children's books, or in clever animated films. The mood is generally lighthearted and witty rather than portentous, even when the subject is serious. The skies in her paintings generally tend toward blue or star-studded rather than cloudy or dark, and the overall style might be called a kind of optimistic expressionism - as opposed to more usual gloomy, guilty, angst-ridden sort.

Complaints that illustrative, narrative images like these don't delve deep enough miss the point, however: Despite their charming unpretentiousness, they are, like the sad, crooked line of Charlie Brown's smile, oddly but genuinely touching. The artist has an obvious gift for expressive mark-making whose full potential, one suspects, will unfold ever more forcefully as her career progresses.

The show runs through Sept. 30. The gallery is at 820 W. 36th St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 410-235-1888.

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