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Stone Bold

Jon Isherwood’s High-Tech Manipulation Makes Big Rocks Feel Like Old Rocks

GOOD TITLE: In pieces such as “The Sensualist,” Jon Isherwood redefines classic sculptural materials (in this case, marble).

By J. Bowers | Posted 9/14/2005

Jon Isherwood: Configurations

At C. Grimaldis Gallery through Oct. 1

Primal, monolithic, raw. It’s no surprise that British-born sculptor Jon Isherwood’s work evokes these adjectives—after all, the man works in giant slabs of granite and exotic marble, inspired in part by the quarries and prehistoric ruins that dot England’s countryside. Like his mentor, famous metal master Anthony Caro, Isherwood excels at allowing the natural color, texture, and sheer visual weight of his material to exist on its own terms. His repertoire is a geologist’s wet dream—marble in a rainbow of color variations, dark Foxhill granite, and pebbly pink travertine are just a few of the rocks that he transforms, hewing seemingly immovable, cold raw material into fluid, bulbous forms that possess a certain inexplicable human warmth, while simultaneously suggesting nautilus shells, barnacles, and other geometrically intriguing denizens of the deep blue.

Another paradox resides in the heart of Isherwood’s sculpture, however—though inextricably linked to the natural world in form and substance, he created his most recent pieces using decidedly 21st-century techniques. A display in the back of C. Grimaldis Gallery’s latest Isherwood collection, Configurations, reveals part of the truth—a thin pile of swirled white sand rests atop a table, inert, while an image of an identical spread of sand is projected upon the surface. In a film, Isherwood’s hands perpetually move through the sand, creating swirls and mounds that echo those on the table, creating the illusion of movement—it’s hard to know which forms are on-screen and which are right in front of you. The effect is downright hypnotic and impressive as an installation in its own right, but a little research reveals that all this sand-play is actually part of a sophisticated, high-tech artistic process.

Using something called computer numerically controlled technology(CNC), Isherwood digitally captures the sandy spirals and curves and feeds the information into computer-directed carving tools that create uncannily precise concentric rings and rows of lines on the rocks’ surfaces, accentuating and commenting upon their round sensuality, while providing a counterpoint to the natural veining of the material. Isherwood completes his work by hand, chiseling and refining each piece, adding humanity and detail.

When Isherwood’s strange cocktail of information-age technology, classical materials, and old-fashioned carving skill is at its best, his works are strange, weighty enigmas. Many of his most successful works hinge on the presence of hollowed-out centers and negative space. With 2003’s “Things are not always what they seem,” a squat, shell-like form carved out of creamy pinkish travertine, you’re immediately drawn toward the hollow center, unable to avoid gazing down into its unyielding, frustratingly empty depths. “Both and Between,” a Stonehenge-like stand of black Foxhill granite, contrasts rough-hewn surfaces and liquid-smooth polished stone, but the real focal point of the piece is a dark, forbidding fissure that splits the work in half, top to bottom. Another hollow work, “The Virtuoso,” is a towering shell-like spire of gray Bardiglio Imperiale marble, culminating in a smooth, tubelike opening.

Easy comparisons to the curvy sensuality and receptive nature of the female form abound in the older CNC works, but Isherwood’s most recent pieces owe more, it seems, to the precise geometry of honeycombs and barnacles than the fleshy folds of the human body. Two acrylic and wax drawings suggest a more organic way of approaching the creative process—Isherwood’s attraction to striated lines and swirling patterns are still evident here, but more free-flowing. The new work, in turn, looks more tactile—“Findings,” a slightly concave floor-mounted black slab of Champlain marble, is reminiscent of a fossil imprint, with small carved circular indentations covering the entire surface. Struck with Isherwood’s chisel, black gives way to wounded white, underlining the primitive man-against-material nature of the work.

A pair of pedestal-mounted marble pieces, “Dionysus’s Dream” and “The Soliloquy,” find Isherwood exploring vessel forms, complete with swanlike necks and generous, rounded bases. You expect to find one of the artist’s trademark hollow spaces running through the length of these pieces, but they are stubbornly solid, an unexpected choice that adds interest to the works.

Isherwood’s craftsmanship and innovative techniques are undeniable, and his pieces are almost universally attractive—the human eye is, after all, instinctively drawn toward both large masses of rock and smooth, curved surfaces. But taken en masse, his work can feel almost overwhelmingly similar—many pieces are variations on ongoing themes.

A few, such as “The Sensualist”—a lumpish floor-mounted blob of Bardiglio Imperiale marble, pockmarked with barnaclelike divots—almost mock their own overly allusive titles; surely an unblemished, smooth wave would be more deserving of the name. And in the spare confines of C. Grimaldis Gallery, these monolithic objects can feel hemmed in, uncomfortable with their own sheer size and scope. You want to see them resting on remote sheep-mown fields and craggy wind-swept beaches, not on a gallery floor—but then again, when you find yourself still feeling that way about rocks that have been digitally manipulated, chiseled, and otherwise completely removed from their natural habitat, it’s a compliment.

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