Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Changing Horses at Full Gallop: Howard Sherman at McMurtrey Gallery

Robert Boyd

Hollywood stuntman Yakima Canutt was famous for jumping from a horse onto a pair of horses pulling a stage and then dropping under the horses. He did this in John Ford's Stagecoach. Howard Sherman hasn't risked his life like Yakima Canutt, but he has metaphorically jumped from one horse to another with his current show, Metaphysical Batman at McMurtrey Gallery.

Last year, his work looked like this:

Howard Sherman, Fear Eating Machine, 2012, acrylic and marker, 70 X 60 inches

Fear Eating Machine combines paint and marker, so we can say it has some link to street art, but otherwise it is identifiably a traditional painting. A flat image on a flat surface. His new work looks more like this:

Howard Sherman, Sportsmanship is For Suckers, 2013, acrylic, marker and acid free paper on canvas, 83 x 76 x 13 inches

It's not so much that Sherman is now using paper as a collage element in his paintings like Sportsmanship is For Suckers, it's that he is using it as a deep relief element. These are no longer just paintings. They have a sculptural element to them now. We've seen this kind of expansion from the picture plane by artists before--Frank Stella is the most famous example.

So Sherman has jumped horses. Did it work? Well, at first glance the new work seems strikingly different from the old work. But when you see the smaller works on paper, which he calls "Internal Dialogues", Sherman uses paper collage but in a more traditional way. The paper is more-or-less flat on the ground. It is usually torn, Robert Motherwell-style. But aside from the paper bits, these look pretty much like his older work in technique and style.

Howard Sherman, various "Internal Dialogue" paintings on paper, 2013

When you go from the "Internal Dialogues" to Sportsmanship is For Suckers, it again isn't a gigantic leap. He retains the slashing colorful paint and the scribbly marker lines. He is still affixing paper to a ground. The only difference--and it's admittedly a big one--is that he is crumpling and folding the paper so that it projects forward from the canvas.

Howard Sherman, Letter of Correspondence, 2013, acrylic, marker and acid free paper on canvas, 83 x 76 x 13 inches

I don't think this approach always works. To me, the relief elements in Sportsmanship is For Suckers and especially in Letter of Correspondence feel tacked on. Sherman is between two horses on the runaway stage without being firmly on either one. The work feels like there are two competing visual ideas that aren't willing to come together.

Howard Sherman, A Giant Among Pygmies, 2013, acrylic, marker and acid free paper on canvas, 83 x 76 x 13 inches

But this might just be us viewers seeing him "mid-leap". If so, that's a privilege. And in A Giant Among Pygmies, he has surrendered the canvas entirely to the paper relief elements. While I like the idea of a piece that exist in the liminal space between sculpture and painting, I like the all-over relief of A Giant Among Pygmies better than something halfway there like Letter of Correspondence. It doesn't feel like it's at war with itself. It allows the shape, the volume, the light and shadow of the relief element to dominate, and those elements are excellent in this piece.

So maybe this is the direction he's going--his new horse. We won't really know until the next show, I suppose. But A Giant Among Pygmies strikes me as a good start.

One final note--paper. Maybe it's the klutz in me, but paper as a sculptural material rubs me the wrong way. It seems too fragile! When I look at A Giant Among Pygmies, I imagine it made of sheet metal like a John Chamberlain. But maybe that's just my own fear of bumping into artworks and destroying them. (I love beautiful glass sculpture, but I'd never own one!)


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