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Note to James Surls: Put away the bong and work, dude

Here's a confession: I've never understood all the folderol over Texas sculptor James Surls. Yeah, I know, I know, he's a Texas icon, a down-home artist who made good. And I have no doubt he's a mensch, or whatever the Texas equivalent would be. He's a teacher (of art, who once taught at SMU), who has served as a mentor and inspiration to countless artists. And he certainly looks like something central casting sent over to play the macho but sensitive Important Texas Artiste, what with that gnarly beard and that wizened face and the wild hair and earring.

And of course there's the art, which I ought to love, Surls being a contemporary throwback to the Symbolists and surrealists I adore. Although he also dabbles in metal, in printmaking and in graphite, Surls is primarily a sculptor who works in wood, and his hallucinatory, bizarre visions arise out of and are shaped primarily by the possibilities of that medium. Surls is one of those guys who looks at a piece of wood and sees what it wants to be, then whittles and scores and stains and puts it all together until the form emerges. His work is mystical, idiosyncratic and proudly provincial, indebted not only to traditions of folk art, but also to the dream merchants of 100 years ago. He's one part Chagall, two parts Miro, and three parts H.C. Westermann, with a dash of Max Ernst and pinches of Julio Gonzalez and David Smith.

Best of all, Surls has an old-fashioned, bourgeois belief in the art object. He utterly lacks the nihilist view of art inherent in so many of the surrealists' modern-day descendents, in the guises of conceptualism and performance art and "happenings." A believer in the primacy of the unconscious, his work focuses on states of mind, dreams, alienation, desire and loss. Like the surrealists, Surls concocts fantasy from commonplace materials. Unlike his forebears, however, Surls' focus is not primarily on the absurdities of language and communication. Surls is a believer in symbols, not a skeptic.

"Being in the Needle's Eye, 1981," one of James Surls' earlier works  now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.
"Being in the Needle's Eye, 1981," one of James Surls' earlier works now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art.

Details

In the Meadows: Recent Sculpture, Drawings and Prints of James Surls runs through April 20 at the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University. Call 214-768-2614.

James Surls: Two Decades of Sculpture runs through April 20 at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. Call 214-969-9410.

So why, then, has his work always left me, if not quite cold, no more than lukewarm?

Two shows of Surls' work, one at the Meadows Museum, the other at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, have given me an opportunity to ponder this koan. Encompassing different periods of Surls' work, the two exhibitions show how the man has evolved during the past 30 years of making art.

The Pillsbury show, such as it is, contains a few pieces of Surls' work dating from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, while the Meadows show dates largely from 1999. As one might expect, given SMU's latent interest and Pillsbury's patent one, both are chiefly promotional jobs. Even the Meadows show lacks anything approaching a critical perspective. (The most provocative argument it advances is the assertion, writ large on the way in, that Surls is "one of America's most important contemporary sculptors." One wonders how many curators of contemporary art with no connection to Texas, Surls or his dealers' galleries would agree.) It would be interesting to see what arguments the curators advance in the show's catalog; unfortunately, in a startlingly amateurish move, the Meadows' catalog to accompany the show will not be published until June, two months after the show ends.

It isn't hard to see where they are going, however. The Meadows show--titled In the Meadows: Recent Sculpture, Drawings and Prints of James Surls--contains four to five dozen sculptures, drawings and maquettes, interspersed with quotes and poems from Surls himself. The work, much of which was created especially for the Meadows setting, is simply stunning. Much of the work is large, even monumental in the truest sense, and some pieces, like "From the Pitcher," are among the best work Surls has ever done.

One of the show'sthemes, poorly developed in wall text, is how Surls' work has changed since he quit Texas for Colorado's Aspen Valley several years ago. Although the text quotes Surls talking about how "terrain, place, space, you know, that encircling kind of atmosphere that's around you...absolutely will help dictate the terms of your thinking," the curators make little or no effort to point out exactly how the work has changed. Certainly, the symbolic vocabulary--knives, flowers, eyes, diamonds, hands, faces, wigwams--remains the same, with the obvious addition of bridges and themes such as snow.

The contrast between Surls' mature work at the Meadows and the early pieces at Pillsbury and Peters is more instructive. With a few exceptions, Surls has lost the kitschy, anthropomorphic qualities of pieces like "Burning Dog." Unfortunately the more finished, polished later work has also lost some of its raw energy, and its psychological honesty.

Alas, what Surls' work has not lost over the years is the loopy, sophomoric, New-Agey quality that has always bothered me. One can only take so much of Surls' pop culture-quality ruminations on topics like "Me, God, Evolution, Love, Relationship [sic] and you [sic], " or his Rocky Mountain-high-style musings on "quasars in the shoulder bone...of Orion." Surls at his best is a master of symbolist reduction, of sublimated ego and demons; Surls at his worst has a slightly derivative, flower-child oh-wow-man quality and is given to quoting such lights of Western philosophy MC Hammer.

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