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James Surls: With Out, With In (Art Review)

Kathryn Pearce 6 months ago

James Surls: With Out, With In
Umlauf Sculpture Museum & Garden
Thru August 18, 2019

James Surls is cast as a towering figure in the world of Texas art, and for good reason. His latest exhibit at the Umlauf Sculpture Museum titled James Surls: With Out, With In displays the wide breadth and experimental nature of his oeuvre, a range of extremes that is utterly intriguing and left me yearning for more. Admittedly, I came to his work as a novice knowing next to nothing about him or his artwork, but I relish this type of viewer anonymity because it allows me the chance to run with my own interpretation.

Born in Terrell, Texas in 1943, Surls has led a prolific artistic life with a career as an arts educator at several major universities as well as a devoted arts advocate. Working in a multitude of mediums including printmaking, drawing and filmmaking, Surls effortlessly transitions between these modes. With Out, With In primarily exhibits Surls’ sculpture with a sprinkling of drawings and prints, though these are used as a guide to view his three-dimensional works. Often considered to be falling a bit outside of the fickle art world’s defined parameters, the artist’s work is infused with the rigor of Minimalism but grounded by a folk art edge.

james surls

James Surls, Being Ready, 1989


james surls

James Surls, All Around, 1993

Symbols such as eyes, horns, houses and knives pervade Surls’ art. He incorporates these symbols into abstracted forms made of wood, iron and steel that vary in size. One of the most disturbing but visually arresting artworks in the show is Being Ready. Suspended from the ceiling with a wire from its head, the oak sculpture seems to be striding in space as if slowly creeping along to its next victim with its sickle hands and feet at the ready. The eyes on the anthropomorphic figure smolder golden and surge with omniscient power. All Around furthers this ominous theme, especially with its enlarged pupiled eyes suspiciously peering out of a sculpted house. Fashioned out of bronze, the horn emerging from All Around is decidedly perverse but equally unseemly in that it resembles a Ku Klux Klan hood with peep holes.

james surls

James Surls, Flower Tea, 2016

However, not all the art in the exhibition is brooding. There is a solid diffusion of sunnier works on display as well. One of my favorites is a bronze and stainless steel teapot with spindly flowers spewing from its top entitled Flower Tea. It is frivolously jolly and connotes ideas of domesticity and new life with its weed-like flowers growing in the most unlikely of spots.

With Out, With In showcases many works throughout Surls’s lengthy career, but navigating through it is a feat. The main exhibit room is overcrowded with work cramped on all surfaces from the floor to display tables to the ceiling. Editing the work down to a select few examples and expanding the exhibition space to include the second room of the museum would have vastly improved the flow and overall direction of the show. This is not to say I did not appreciate the art of James Surls, and I am now a definite convert of his. I look forward to seeing his work in a space that lets it freely breath its individuality.

**Read this Texas Monthly interview if you are looking for a primer on the artist and his career.

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