Modern Twist to an Age-Old Idea

The New York Times  |  Benjamin Genocchio  |  12/16/2007

A spiral-shaped vessel made of interlocking sections of reddish-brown mahogany flooring catches the eye in “Enclosures,” a new exhibition at the Grounds for Sculpture.  Beautiful in appearance, innovative in its use of materials and skillful in its execution, this intriguing-looking object by Foon Sham stands as a symbol for the more than two dozen artworks in this delightful group show.

It could also stand as a symbol for a strand of contemporary art. Though it has no name, its chief characteristics are familiar: artwork exhibiting skill and careful hand finishing. Everywhere you look these days, artists are returning to the idea of craftsmanship as the foundation for art. It is an encouraging sign after years of formless conceptual nonsense.

At any rate, “Enclosures” offers many beautiful and well-made sculptures by four mid-career artists — Jon Isherwood, John Ruppert, Wendy Ross and Mr. Sham — who deal in one way or another with ideas of enclosed spaces. This is a modern twist on an old notion, for sculptural vessels and containers of various kinds have been at the heart of art-making since the dawn of time.

The show opens with a selection of Mr. Isherwood’s carved marble forms. Though abstract, the forms are sensual and even occasionally erotic, for somehow Mr. Isherwood manages to make marble look as if it were soft and fleshy. In short, what is peculiar and astonishing about Mr. Isherwood’s sculptures is the way they make the viewer think of the human body without directly resembling it.

Partly, I think, it is a result of the shapes — squat, bloated-looking forms spilling and sprawling all over the place. They provoke associations with a pudgy stomach or the rolls of dimpled flesh on a voluptuous woman. Then there is the artist’s use of fine vertical carved lines to contour the marble, creating the illusion of stretched skin. The overall result looks like a cross between a beanbag and a water balloon.

Other artists in the exhibition make more conventional-looking enclosures. Mr. Ruppert makes baskets out of galvanized steel and aluminum chain-link fencing. These are monumental works of assemblage art, the baskets sometimes more than 10 feet high and 12 feet wide. They are really more like cages than baskets, containing and visualizing for viewers a sense of empty space.

Mr. Ruppert writes in a statement in the exhibition catalog that the use of chain-link fencing was influenced by the urban environment of his studio; he is the chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland in College Park and lives in Baltimore. This connection hints at other kinds of meanings, specifically a darker, more dangerous world that pulses beneath the clean, shiny surface of the sculptures.

Ms. Ross also works with coiled steel, though to very different ends. She is interested in the simple aesthetic pleasures of primary shapes and forms, like tubes and spheres. Many of her sculptures are made of little Modern Twist to an Age-Old Idea – cones of coiled steel welded together to take on the appearance of old-fashioned translucent glass. The cones also give her works a pleasing sense of volume, density and weight.

Ms. Ross’s sculptures, primarily concerned with issues of surface and form, don’t fit all that neatly within the exhibition theme, enclosures. By contrast, Mr. Sham’s wood constructions are all about the relationships between interior and exterior space. They are also transparently complicated, consisting of idiosyncratic structures with intriguing openings. They look like jerry-built children’s playhouses.

Mr. Sham patterns and layers the surface of his sculptures using woods of contrasting stains, textures and natural colors. That is clever, for it renders visible something we often take for granted in art: it makes us understand structure as material, or how surface and form connect.

This may seem like a small thing, but it is part of what makes Mr. Sham’s artworks stand out.

“Enclosures,” Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, through April 27. Information:
(609) 586-0616 or