The garden gnome population in Ulster County will soon be increased. Thirteen solid-colored, 32-inch-high “power gnomes” cast in pigmented resin by Ellenville-based artist Sam Tufnell will soon inhabit a craggy cliff overlooking the High Falls Emporium in a site-specific installation, Gnome Mountain. The official unveiling will take place on Saturday, April 8 in a lighting ceremony at approximately 7 p.m. on the corner of Old Route 213 and NY-213. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the nearby Wired Gallery, which will exhibit a solo show of related work by Tufnell through May 7. The gnomes in the outdoor installation will weather the seasons up on the cliff indefinitely.
Tufnell’s resin “power gnomes” are identified as such because they’re usually mounted on illuminated platforms that make the single-color pigmented sprites glow with light, as if powered by some source of energy from within. The elves in Gnome Mountain will be lit by natural light in the daytime and spotlights at night. The gnomes will be securely installed to prevent an occurrence like that at a Florida museum a few years ago, when a blue gnome by Tufnell was stolen from an exhibit. (Given the practice of people who take garden gnomes around the world to photograph them in various places, Tufnell says he hopes that at some point it’ll resurface.)
The focus of the show at the Wired Gallery will be the artist’s illuminated “still-life” assemblages that bring together clear or pigmented resin castings of everyday, ordinary objects – water bottles, soda cans and the like – affixed to the top of illuminated pedestals that become part of the finished work.
Tufnell says he deliberately chooses to cast objects that are abundant and easily identifiable, often found at supermarkets or garden centers, as a way of challenging the “monumental” ethos that prevails in sculpture. “I wanted to do something satirical on some level, but a little more playful. The gnomes and the still-lifes are pretty much my reaction to public art, figurative art, high-end art in general; sort of taking things down a notch, ‘de-elevating’ it. This stuff gets way too serious.”
People often assume that he has a large collection of garden gnomes, Tufnell says, but that’s not the case. Nor are the gnomes inspired by Ulster County’s famously statuesque garden gnome, the giant Chomsky standing sentinel outside Kelder’s Farm in Kerhonkson. Originally from Los Angeles, Tufnell relocated to New York City in 1996, earning a BFA from the School of Visual Arts before setting up shop in a Brooklyn studio to work on a number of sculptural pieces utilizing ordinary objects as formal elements. He did a series of rosebushes fabricated in steel, playing off the contrast between industrial means and organic subject matter, and another of bronzelike mixed-media salvage works featuring stuffed trashbags and overflowing trashcans.
After a friend who lives in Ulster County introduced him to the area a few years ago, Tufnell ended up buying property in Ellenville and building a studio there that he considers his primary workspace now. He still commutes down to Brooklyn part-time, but says he finds the Hudson Valley a good environment for an artist and a welcome break from trying to work in the distractions of the City, where space is expensive and finding enough of it is a challenge, especially for the kind of work that he does. “I just like the vibe,” he says of working in Ellenville, “and the fact it’s a little more rugged and untouched.”
This is Tufnell’s first solo show in the Hudson Valley. He has exhibited widely since 2008 in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Connecticut and California, winning several awards for his work, including the solo award at ArtExpo New York 2013. Some of his illuminated work was recently on view at the Cornell Art Museum in Delray Beach, Florida.
Wired gallerist Sevan Melikyan says he was intrigued when he heard about an artist newly relocated to Ellenville. “That encounter led to this extraordinary project that has now the potential of giving High Falls a new landmark in Gnome Mountain. I can easily see people making a trip to see this and take selfies in front of the cliff under the watch of a colony of gnomes.”
The site-specific installation wouldn’t have been possible, he adds, without High Falls Emporium owner Ron Faia, who last May invited Melikyan to open and curate a sculpture garden at the Emporium. Faia is so into having Gnome Mountain on the cliffs above, says Melikyan, that he plans to install the gnomes personally.
Tufnell says he’s not sure if he’s finished with the series of gnomes. “I’ve pretty much stopped doing them, but I’m not exactly sure at the moment. I was thinking I would wrap up my old series at this point and move on. These 13 were basically the last of the gnomes in my studio; I wasn’t expecting to release them all at the same time. But when this came up, I looked at the site and committed to it; it was kind of serendipitous…I feel like I’m setting them free.”
Sam Tufnell exhibit opening reception, Saturday, April 8, 5-7:30 p.m., through May 7, Saturday/Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wired Gallery, 11 Mohonk Road, High Falls; (682) 564-5613, www.thewiredgallery.com, www.samtufnell.com.
Gnome Mountain lighting ceremony, Saturday, April 8, sunset (7 p.m.), on view indefinitely, High Falls Emporium Sculpture Garden, 10 Old State Route 213, High Falls; (718) 344-8571, www.thehighfallsemporium.com.