Sculpture in the village marks springtime in Saugerties

Three pieces by Lowell Miller. (Photos by Lynn Woods)

It’s been the coldest, dreariest April in memory. No lilacs yet, forming buds out of the dead land. 

Despite the cruel season, Saugerties has gotten a jump on spring, thanks in part to a village-wide display of sculpture including a knock-out show at Cross Contemporary, 99 Partition Street, in honor of International Sculpture Day (ISD, on April 28).

Before a leaf has sprouted, the well-lit display of monumental works in the windows of the former J.J. Newberry Co.’s five-and-dime will have you standing admiringly out in the cold. In front of a backdrop of an immense linen curtain, a triumvirate of styles, representing three different artists, is riveting. 

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To the left is Ian Laughlin’s installation of an industrial barrel split down the middle to reveal an illuminated image of barbed wire and dead branches ominously framing a “Posted Public Water Supply” sign, an ecocidal message cleverly embedded in a found object that signifies the source of the problem. 

In the middle are Lowell Miller’s striking abstracted figures, posed as if they were Cycladic mannequins, primitive in their extreme simplicity of form and subdued charcoal coloration and surface patterning, imbued with a bouncy animation as though they contained an inflatable.

To the right is a piece by Millicent Young that at first glance strikes one as exquisitely lyrical. A thick column of horsehair suspended from the high, hard-to-see ceiling descending into a distressed, blackened plaster vessel, resembling the base of a hollowed-out charred tree trunk, except that the bottom is slightly curved, like a witch’s pot. The coloration of the horsehair gradually shifts from cream at the top to black at the bottom, so that the hair seems to meld with the vessel, transforming the two elements into a single form, a kind of koan signaling the meeting of opposites. The upward movement of black, dark as coal, seeping into the pearly tones of the hair, seems to draw a parallel with the pouring of carbon into the atmosphere, a symbolic image of ecocide that echoes the message of Laughlin’s piece.

While beautiful, the image, interpreted as such, is also dramatic and horrific, in the contrast between pale, delicate hair and black, filthy pot. An ordinary store window is transformed into a portal for the imagination that reflects on the condition and crisis of our time, imbuing a touch of magic to the quotidian life of the sidewalk.

The three artists are also represented in the sculpture show at Cross Contemporary (owner Jen Dragon curated not just the gallery show but also the street and window installations), whose 46 works run the gamut from figurative to abstract, from the medium of steel to wood to cloth, ceramic, and more, from a scale ranging from the size of your finger to the height of the room.  

Young’s tablet-like Canto for the Anthropocene, a memorial to the death of the earth, features a square pan of lead punctured with a grid of holes, as if they were rows of computer code; black horse hairs sprout out of the lower center holes, like chest hair, lending a kind of vulnerability to the lead sheet, whose whitened patina and scored surface suggest industrial usage and the passage of time. It’s an artifact, a fragment of mysterious text whose wisps of hair yet speak of living beings and the present, a presaged ruin that sends chills up your spine.

A Provan sculpture at Sawyer savings bank.

Susan Spencer Crowe’s That Way similarly consists of an approximate square whose surface is scored with a grid of incisions. In this case the piece is weightless and light-imbued, spritely and full of movement. The rectangular ground is white cardboard, folded vertically to create a zigzagging relief pattern, with a row of colored triangles partially cut out of each longitudinal section, folded back to reveal the shadowy space within. Along the bottom of the folded rectangle is a gorgeous prismatic pattern of shadows from the folded and scored surface.  The substance of the piece is mostly empty space, a gossamer breath stamped with the organizational clarity of tangible substance, energized by the arrows of clear, harmonious color, directing the viewer’s gaze off the page, elsewhere.

Provan’s freestanding Void Oid and Bambi Lambo, the former a bright yellow flattened hollow steel ovoid with Swiss cheese holes in the skin and the latter a series of thin, fluid green steel ribbons, a drawing in space that seems crafted of a single line and whose jutting angles recall the surrealistic sign language of a David Smith, are like Mutt and Jeff, their playfulness echoed by the swirling flower-like lines of Michael Ciccone’s bronze Euphoria, anchored in a chunk of bronze earth. 

The descending tiers of Tony Moore’s bulky ceramic Children of Light I, fitted into a tall wooden stool, resemble an ancient pueblo in miniature, a spirit place, given that the pieces of white glass inserted into its circular caves suggest melted candles. The two closed clamshell forms of Miller’s Venus, an elongated sphere of rough-textured bronze, one resting on top and the other inserted longitudinally into an opening at the base, respectively represent a mouth and vulva, conflating pop cartoon and Neolithic fertility fetish. 

There are also a number of figurative works that masterfully suggest narratives: Grace Bakst Wapner’s clay pairing of two figures, in which a supine, smaller male rests against a headless kneeling female, Pieta-like, although there is also resistance in the way both the kneeling figure’s and the male figure’s arms are pulled back. Judy Sigunick’s statuesque clay When Viola Turns, a white-faced, red-haired rendition of Shakespeare’s character from Twelfth Night whose white shoulders are submerged into a bulky, columnar dress, suggest a kind of distressed armature, from which a smaller male figure — in a nod to the character’s gender-switching disguise — dangles like a ragdoll from the back.

Melissa Stern’s comic, animated Follow the Leader, present a relief of three plaster heads and half torsos, each gesturing with a single arm, comically conveying groupthink. 

Jan Harrison’s two sculptures of cats, one shiny black and stretched out on its back, leg raised in the air with white claw extended and white teeth exposed, the other pale pink, translucent (the matte surface is covered in encaustic), and crouching submissively, are playful but not sentimental. We identify with the intensity of expression — the snarling defenses of the one and tender, will-to-please mien of the other — as though each represents some elemental part of the self. 

The late Jan Sawka’s assemblage Torso II is in a category by itself: flat-colored cutouts of the head and shoulders of a man, which get larger as they recede, are tightly bundled with black rope, as if they were hangers. The larger pieces in the back form a sinister, looming shadow figure, imagery that references the political persecution Sawka and other free-thinking artists were subject to in Communist Poland.

A few doors down, at 117 Partition Street, Saugerties resident sculptor Ze’ev Willy Neumann has established a Pop Up Gallery for his clever, inventive sculpture and drawings, in a show entitled “Red Balloon” (referring to a piece on the back wall, in which a grid of colored drawings of balloon-like heads on a collaged surface echoes the form of a shiny red sculpture). The show includes his “Floor to Ceiling” modular series, fishing-pole-scaled strips of painted black-and-color checked wood, squared or rounded, arranged in rows, straight or tilted, from floor to ceiling, and his “Spears into Art” series, which includes wall pieces in which the weapon is defanged, by being twisted into a coiled circle or wrenched into an angled interlocking diamond. 

Across the street, the sunken courtyard owned by Bella Luna has been transformed into a sculpture park. The works include Stuart Farmery’s twin chunky, figure-like pieces, each consisting of three pieces of roughly carved wood whose shapes are emphasized by their yellow, green-yellow, red, orange or blue paint; Provan’s diagrammatic-like colored steel constructions, one of which depicts three types of perspectives, in yellow, blue, and red; and the plant-like, volumetric black-steel sculpture, consisting of pieces welded together, as if they were stitched fabric pillows, by late sculptor Jeffry Schiller. 

There’s more works in front of Sawyer Savings Bank, the Kiersted House, and Saugerties Beach, as well as at Diamond Mills. Besides the Provan piece, there’s a skinny, faceted columnar-like piece of carved stone, slightly tilted as if were about to keel over, and incised with meandering white lines, as if invested with burrowing worms, by Japanese artist Kenichi Hiratsuka. Hiratsuka also contributed the two rugged stone pieces that frame the restaurant fireplace. (When Hiratsuka was living on the Lower East Side, “he’d carve drawings of labyrinths into the bluestone sidewalk,” Dragon noted.)

This is the second year Saugerties has hosted a town-wide sculpture exhibit in honor of ISD, and Dragon said she envisions the event expanding in the future: “I see sculpture doing what the Festival of the Voice did for Phoenicia,” said the former Phoenicia resident, noting the village and businesses have been very supportive. On Aril 28 — ISD — there will be a party held at the Bella Luna courtyard, featuring living “sculptures” played by costumed and painted performers. Dragon is also planning to host an art fair in August, modeled after Art Basel.

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