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Nature's Way

A Sculptor Keeps It Simple

Brent Crothers’ "Western Logic"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 4/25/2001

Why Care?

Galerie Françoise et ses Fréres through May 1

The wood gathered by Brent Crothers from his Harford County property wouldn't be of much interest to a logger. Crothers doesn't bother with straight, sturdy cuts of timber, favoring instead crooked tree trunks, even Y-shaped ones that only seem suitable for making giant slingshots.

Crothers doesn't have any slingshots in his exhibit at Galerie Françoise in Lutherville, but there are all sorts of other playful creations. He cuts his wood into shapes that resemble everything from tools to wheels. He also makes you think about the properties of the wood itself by juxtaposing it with gleaming copper wire. There is a certain amount of sawing and shaping involved in making his sculptures, but there also is the sense that the materials need to speak for themselves without too much of an artistic makeover.

His sculptures possess a rough elegance. It's as if nature has been altered a bit for indoor-display purposes but still retains much of its raw power. His doctored logs are metaphorically allusive without being outright descriptive. Like contemporary wood sculptors ranging from David Nash to Martin Puryear, Crothers knows that minimally worked wood has totemic associations.

Although some of Crothers' pieces would benefit from a little more breathing room than this snug gallery provides, he has enough smallish pieces that are effectively showcased here. Also, one piece is installed just outside the gallery, and two more are displayed in an auxiliary space on the other side of the Green Spring Station courtyard.

Crothers is at his biggest and best in a piece like "Face the Storm." A forked locust trunk stands upside down, as if it were either a giant-sized clothespin or a two-legged thing leaning against the gallery wall. Each leg has a mini-canyon incised into it: One canyon is lined with tightly bunched copper strips, and the other is sooty, owing to a tightly controlled fire that the artist set there. That controlled burn, which was neatly contained within the incision, seems to speak to the nature of this sculpture as a whole. Natural materials and processes are on display here, but so too are precisely calibrated sculptural methods. Although Crothers is obviously calling attention to contrasts between wood, charred wood, and copper, you otherwise are free to interpret this Y-shaped thing however you care to.

Besides responding to the shape of "Face the Storm," you also must respond to the smell of it. Linseed oil has been rubbed into the wood, giving the sculpture a honey-hued warmth and a correspondingly sweet smell. Crothers treats his sculptures with linseed as a conservation measure when the pieces are displayed outside, but he usually exhibits them untreated in galleries. Seeing and smelling "Face the Storm" makes one wish he'd explore--and exhibit-- linseed rubs and other surface treatments more extensively. Let semidomesticated nature appeal to our noses as well as our eyes.

Another sculpture that makes a strong impression, if only visually, is "Future, Past." Three thin, irregularly shaped locust branches are installed upside down, as if they are supporting an odd, three-legged critter; they're linked at the top of the sculpture, only there's no body up there. Instead, midway up the piece, there is a ball of tightly woven copper pipe wedged between the legs. Again, one is prompted to consider the contrast in materials, and the way Crothers uses basic forms--in this case a globe and a triangular construction. This sculpture is both geometry-minded and ecologically aware in a literally global way.

Because the sculptures in this exhibit are weighty forms that have been given such light and witty treatment, Crothers may want to reconsider some of his more ponderous titles for them. "Why Care?," which is both the name of an individual piece and the title given to the entire show, seems like an invitation for smart-aleck responses.

Other sculptures bear such heavy titles as "Compressing the Centuries," "Western Logic," and "Frustration to Creation." While it's true that Crothers' impressive work merits such serious responses, the self-important titles seem like wooden clubs beating against a visitor's head. Titling artwork can be a vexing, perhaps even a no-win situation for an artist, but Crothers might want to consider a somewhat lighter or more simply descriptive approach.

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