HOMAGE TO WIND, LIGHT, TIME, AND MATTER: GEORGE SHERWOOD’S KINETIC SCULPTURE
Robert C. Morgan
We live in a time in which East and West appear to be merging culturally and aesthetically -- where traditional ideas of Taoism and Zen Buddhism appear integrated (at least on the surface) with Western phenomenology, and where the physical and natural sciences are finding a common ground.
At the same time, we are witnessing the forces of opposition to these merging tendencies in the censorship of free speech and information distribution, through economic boycotts and limitations on trade agreements, through constant military surveillance and political oppression. In numerous regions of the east, people are seeking a better life unhampered by the shortages of essential resources that have divided them in the past, and yet these obstacles persist.
I mention this encapsulation of a world view at the outset of my remarks on the sculpture of George Sherwood, because I think his work deals with various forms of coherence that express the reality of these merging phenomena. As an artist working in his own way according to the terms he has set for himself, there is something implicitly poetic and powerful that rises to the surface in his work, what I would call a qualitative leap, both sensory and cognitive, that informs us of a necessary difference in the way we perceive, think, and feel in relation to what goes on around us.
This happens by way of focusing on structure and wholeness simultaneously. In the act of seeing these kinetic works -- looking upwards, downwards, and sideways from ground level -- one gets the sense of air and breath, the feeling that ‘matter’ matters in the invisible world of digital messages, and, further, that there is a tactile relation to how we think and feel, to the manner in which we address something profound: his sparkling elements and the ineluctable presence of his forms make these concerns clear.
It began last autumn. I was invited by Cynthia Reeves and her staff to view a peripatetic installation, “Waves and Particles”, of six brilliantly kinetic, stainless steel sculptures by George Sherwood sited along the Hudson River Park on the far west side of Greenwich Village. The sumptuous natural environment in which the works were placed immediately absorbed my
consciousness. The location offered an important and necessary contrast to the urban clutter on the opposite side of the West Side Highway. By contrast, the park along the river served as an oasis, certainly in Manhattan – an appropriate setting to stroll through the greenery adjacent to the river and view Sherwood’s works as they responded directly to the gentle wind and sunlight.
Here the shimmering and mysterious Wave Cloud (2013) held its supreme reign, situated a stone’s throw from the elegant, curvilinear Wind Orchard (2009), both expertly fabricated in stainless steel. Each of these forms soared among the trees and amid scattered groups of people, all enjoying the atmospheric grandeur of classical constructivism within a natural setting. Wave Cloud functioned as a high-rise disc, parallel to the ground plane, with literally hundreds of small brilliant steel tabs that permitted the light to ripple kinetically across the surface. An earlier piece, Wind Orchid, draws attention to the subtle movement of its delicate, bifurcated structure. The turning of the stem is driven by four triangular leaves in sinuous rotation at the ends of curved ‘branches’ – these bow and tilt and pierce the blue air, as striated clouds hover above the tree line.
I took the opportunity to view them twice, once by myself, and then again with the artist, while listening to his comments along the way. It seemed that he had a formidable acquaintance with marine environments, as he is a consummate long distance swimmer. He knows the feel of ocean water and wind; he organically comprehends the sense of being with the tug of the water, the act of propelling his body through choppy waves. He knows the currents and the gyres (swirling patterns that occur in ocean waters). This is an important part of his life, a routine he performs assiduously despite distance and frigid temperatures.
There is little doubt that this puts Sherwood in close touch with nature, and that the kinds of movements we see in his kinetic works are not removed from the artist’s intelligent sensibilities, but are embedded, that is, embodied within them.
Sherwood has a way of sublimating what he experiences and concretizing it into form. He is like a calligrapher that takes the space from the wind around him and gives it a magical, concrete presence. Gyres iterates a kinetic theme to which Sherwood often returns in his practice. It consists of a series of circular wing-shaped elements positioned together above an inverted linear arc. The arc is attached to an ascending stainless steel pole, out of human reach. Typical of Sherwood’s public works, one must look up to see it, thus giving the work a majesty and grace, a lofted presence in mid-air. As the location of Gyres is related directly to the breeze coming off the river, the circular elements are spinning more often than not. In the course of their movement, they catch the light of the sun, thus emitting a sensation (not a spectacle) in which we are drawn into the experience of nature, extended into the realm of a natural phenomenon familiar to the artist- swimmer.
Each sculpture in this out-of-doors exhibition had its own tenacity, not through coercion or imposition, but through a kind of nexus or centering process. Each of the exquisitely refined parts within the apparatus is conceived of, and built, to usher the viewer into the work’s holistic structure. This is apparent in a spherical piece, titled Memory of Water (2014). Contrary to other works by Sherwood, this sculpture relies on gravity, as it is positioned directly on the ground. Here, the viewer is invited to peer inside a large circular aperture, which serves as an optical entry point into the concavity of the sphere. Its components are hundreds of hand-cut stainless cylinders of various sizes. Their myriad reflections suggest the illusion of air bubbles moving through the water that represent a visual experience the artist sees daily in his marathon ocean swims.
Whereas other recent works by Sherwood are perceived as a series of repeated, multiple components spinning and turning in relation to one another against the sky – as, for example, in Flock of Birds (2013) and Surf (2014) – Memory of Water relies instead on how the viewer engages with, and explores, its interior chamber, where the optical effects are created by reflections that shift with the viewer’s position. In this, Sherwood reveals, both purposefully and indirectly, a manner of working his forms that is neither concealed nor obvious. There is a perception and comprehension in these works that goes far beyond most of the public sculptures of recent years. The difference lies in the fact that Sherwood’s sculptures clearly investigate human assumptions about nature, and translates them into highly refined forms. They appear to be simple, and yet they are deeply complex.
The German novelist Thomas Mann, upon receiving the Nobel Prize, once commented that he did not want his readers to recall the sturm und drang that went into his writing; rather, he wanted them to feel the words as if they had simply appeared on the page. My experience with the optical and kinetic forms of Sherwood is similar. When I look at his sculpture, I am not privy to the artist’s motivations in giving his sculptures the balance and clarity they ultimately possess. Rather, I feel a sense of lightness, as if they simply happened at the moment I engage in the act of perceiving them. His work confirms a sense of nature’s depth of design. This is the place where the natural and physical sciences somehow merge into one, just as when the Taoist yin and yang are revealed as a single force seeking balance. In this respect, Sherwood reminds us that nature has its own mind as we observe the quixotic force of air made manifest in his ultimately pervasive forms, turning and spinning in time and space, in darkness or in light, from one season to the next.
Moreover, they remind us that that we inhabit a single environment where we must learn to work together. Thus, Sherwood somehow convinces me that my pleasure in viewing his sculpture is primarily concerned with human beings coming to terms, as well, with their own nature.
Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D. writes frequently on the work of contemporary artists. He lives in New York City and teaches in the Graduate School of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. Author of many books and exhibition catalogs, he is a painter and New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. In 1999, he was given the first Arcale award in Salamanca (Spain) for his work in Art Criticism. In 2011, he was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.