Friday, October 21, 2011

Leo Osborne: Juxtapose at Martin Gallery

Leo Osborne. "Gathering of Owls," burled wood sculpture, 23x17x12." This sculpture isn't at Martin Gallery but is representative of what's there. [Image: a hunk of burled, or knotted, wood left dark and uncarved in some spots and carved and sanded in other spots to reveal owl heads and body parts in a smooth light maple color.]

If you are like me you have daydreams of the set of The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband and Whistler's "Peacock Room" in the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery. So if you're like me you should head to Martin Gallery to see Leo Osborne's animal paintings. You might have already seen his sculptures at Martin Gallery: gorgeous burled wood sanded down to a smooth buttery finish in most spots and left jagged in others, formed into swooping abstract shapes or somewhat abstracted animals, often stained with paint that works with the wood's natural pattern and color. You can see more of his work at his website.

Leo Osborne. "Rumi K," burled maple wood sculpture, 14x15x6."

But at the opening last night Osborne was showing paintings of animals that accompanied his sculptures. Most were acrylic and encaustic on gold leaf and very decorative. Each painting was accompanied by a handwritten short poem on lumpy handmade paper that was clearly meant to indicate the magical poetic meaning of each piece. But because I'm a weirdo who doesn't like most poetry (or maybe I just don't get it) I thought they were a little superfluous. The paintings themselves were already full of mystery and were deeply connected to storytelling.

Leo Osborne. "Silent Wisdom," acrylic painting. It's about 1.5 to 2 feet square, if I recall. The accompanying poem read, "In clutter and clamor/ our lives now entwined/ constant information/ no peace do we find/ / but sometimes/ between all that frazzled dumb noise/ a silent wisdom above/ speaks only to love." [Image: painting of an owl's head looking over its wing at the viewer like The Shadow peeking over his cape. Head takes up most of the frame. The background is a halo- or moon-like gold circle and the owl is thinly painted so you can see through the layers.]
His paintings and sculptures were much more complex in person so these photographs unfortunately don't pull you in in the same way (so go check them out in person!). The owl above, for instance, is on a gold leaf background with a negative circle incised in some sort of mystery material. The owl figure is painted on a crackled base where the crackles show through as brilliant red veins. The complimentary greenish brushstrokes on top are so thin that you can see the layers of paint but also fluffed up with some sort of medium so they literally create a texture.

To see this in person is to be immediately drawn in by the artistic process. It is remarkably modern in that the process is laid out so baldly for the viewer, bringing to mind the Clement Greenberg brand Modernists who were all about Process, from Jackson Pollock drips to Helen Frankenthaller pours even to conceptualist Robert Morris' Box With the Sound of Its Own Making. But that tradition alludes to Process as an intellectual concept, as the essence of painting (or sculpture) that makes it a high meaningful art. But with Osborne's work I think these allusions are clearly to craft. These pieces, both the sculptures and paintings, are unabashedly decorative, un-apologetically fine objects of beauty. I mentioned that the pieces were mysterious and seemed to tell a story: it's not just the content that alludes to fables and silence, it's the fusion of the content and form of the painting. The process of layering the brushstrokes, diluting some to create one effect, then creating another on top, recalls the phrase, "spinning a yarn," or "weaving a story." Similarly the smoothed surfaces of the wood clearly indicate the hours and hours spent gradually honing the shape and remind me of a natural process like dripping water forming a cave over however many thousands of years.

Leo Osborne. "Ra," encaustic painting, 16 x 12."

Still, the paintings and sculptures are old-fashioned. Craft itself is in a state of having to be "preserved," and the Oscar Wilde sets and Peacock room I was reminded of are about a hundred years old. Highly worked decorative paintings and wood sculptures like these are rare nowadays so logically they would have been phased out of modern consciousness. But when people see them they still immediately click.

As a bonus I ran into this European gentleman who said in Germany audiences would certainly touch the sculptures on display. He was dressed in black and white from head to toe: black beret, silver-white hair, crisp white shirt, grey and white striped seersucker jacket, white silk tie patterned in formal black zig-zag, a chrome cane (I don't recall if he carried a cane or an imaginary cane was simply implied by his European-ness). Enjoy.

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