Saturday, March 20, 2010

James Surls at Rice

Robert Boyd

Several weeks ago I heard that some James Surls sculptures had been installed on the campus of Rice. I was going to write about them, so I sent a note to Rice's PR people asking for information. They wrote back asking me to wait until they had an official press release and roll-out. I promised I would and asked to be put on the distribution list.

Yesterday (three weeks after I took my photos), Surls sent out an invitation. Still no word from Rice. So to heck with them. Here's what Surls sent (it looks like it's the press release that Rice was supposed to have sent):


Please join us for this amazing event honoring artist James Surls
Monday, March 22, 2010
4-6 PM
Rice University

Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion
4 PM - Artist tour of works
5 PM - Reception and remarks
Featuring a commissioned soundscape by Dagang Chen

Please reply by March 18 to 713-348-4111 or
Parking is available in the Central Campus Garage.


The Rice University Public Art Program and Houston Arts Alliance present Between Paradox: a Public lecture by artist James Surls, Tuesday, March 23, 2010, Noon - 1 p.m. in Rice University, Herring Hall, Room 100. Light refreshments will be served following the lecture at 12:45pm.

Magnificent Seven: Houston Celebrates Surls is a partnership between the Rice Public Art Program and the Houston Arts Alliance, with support from a City of Houston Special Initiative Grant and private donations. The exhibition is on view March 1 through August 31.

Unfortunately, I can't attend any of these events (which seem designed to exclude people with jobs). But perhaps you can. That said, I feel comfortable showing the photos I took now.

James Surls, Standing Vase with Five Flowers, 2005

Surls likes flowers. He doesn't try to portray particular flowers--I think he just likes that particular petal shape. Perhaps because they are made of metal, they always remind me of boat props. In size, too, they are closer in size to large boat props. Consequently, I often feel a tension in Surls' sculpture between the organic and the machine.

James Surls, All Diamond, 2006

That tension is present here, too. The hard edged "diamonds" can be seen as either natural crystalline structures or mysterious manufactured objects. I am reminded of some of the semi-abstract book covers of science fiction books from the 1960s. The artist (or artists--I apologize for not knowing who he or she was) of those covers was inspired, I assume, by the work of Matta, and I see Matta in Surls' sculptures (especially "All Diamonds"). Surls' sculptures feel like inexplicable ancient artifacts of an extinct alien civilization.

James Surls, All Diamond detail, 2006

James Surls, Big Bronze Walking Eye Flower, 2008

Again a flower-like form, but the spiraling circular design makes me think of a mandala. There is a spiritual element to much of Surls' sculpture. Pieces like this seem designed to make you forget time, to find yourself in an eternal present. It belongs on an ashram or in a quiet garden where you can sit with it and be.

James Surls, Knot and Needle, 2007

But don't imagine that Surls is all about the hippie vibe. His pieces can have menace, too. Real menace in this case--don't play frisbee or football close to this--a misstep could be fatal. But it gets back to nature. Nature is red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson wrote. An armor of spikes is what keeps cacti and porcupines from extinction.

James Surls, Knot and Needle detail, 2007

James Surls, Again The Tree, Knot, Flower, and Me, 2009

Most of Surls' sculptures have one visual idea. This one combines several and it therefore feels a lot different from his other sculptures. It's east to see the tree, the knot and the flower. Does that mean that Surls is that droopy thing hanging down by the side?

There is one more sculpture that I didn't photograph in front of the inelegantly named Bioscience Research Collaborative. I think all of the sculptures are going to be up for six months, so you have plenty of time to check them out. Please do--they're wonderful.

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