Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Art review: Storrs's work embraces chill of the modern

Modern Madonna (1918),
by John Storrs.


By Gretel Sarmiento

To ask an audience to explore unseen works by a popular or a controversial artist is piece of cake.‭ ‬Asking them to come see rare works by a less shocking artist,‭ ‬unknown by most,‭ ‬takes guts.‭

But that’s precisely what the Norton Museum is doing with‭ ‬John Storrs:‭ ‬Machine-Age Modernist,‭ ‬a show consisting mainly of metal and stone sculptures by the Chicago native who happened to be a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and a student of Auguste Rodin.

‬Now and then we see a drawing or an abstract painting hinting at the willingness of the artist to explore other mediums or maybe adjust to the hard times.‭ ‬Take these paintings and drawings as Storrs's warm side.‭ ‬Everything else here is rigid,‭ ‬heavy,‭ ‬emotionless,‭ ‬cold and silent,‭ ‬bulky when not elegant and,‭ ‬because of all of this,‭ ‬very modern.‭ ‬We should know.

Enter the first room.‭ ‬A set of three buildings are displayed together.‭ ‬From left to right they are:‭ ‬Forms in Space‭ (‬c.‭ ‬1924‭)‬,‭ ‬Forms in Space‭ (‬c.‭ ‬1926‭)‬,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Forms in Space No. 4.‭ ‬They could very well be the work of any artist from today rather than an artist born in‭ ‬1885.‭

The sleek structures,‭ ‬which resemble skyscrapers and towers then emerging in big cities‭ ‬such‭ ‬as Chicago and New York,‭ ‬are made of mixed metals including steel and copper.‭ ‬They represent a familiar subject,‭ ‬are straightforward and easy to comprehend,‭ ‬but they don't feel very personal.‭ ‬Even the titles suggest a certain distance.

That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the elegant lines,‭ ‬natural color variations from the metals and geometric patterns on the pieces.‭ ‬But as soon as we do,‭ ‬we feel like moving on.‭

These and larger details can easily go unnoticed if we rush through the‭ ‬brief exhibit.‭

Watch for the repetition of triangles on the‭ ‬1924‭ ‬bronze piece‭ ‬Study in Form‭ (‬Forms in Space‭)‬ and‭ ‬for‭ ‬the rhombus pattern on‭ ‬Study in Architectural Forms‭ (‬c.‭ ‬1927‭)‬.‭ ‬Take‭ ‬Abstract Form No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬(c.‭ ‬1917-19‭)‬,‭ ‬which is the first granite sculpture as we enter the second gallery room.‭ ‬If abandoned too quickly,‭ ‬we would never discover the bird-like creature that seems to be taking flight,‭ ‬and that those straight lines are actually wings.‭

The cemented coldness and silence found on Storrs's sculptures are not restricted to buildings.‭ ‬Why should humans escape that notion‭? ‬They don't.‭

Ceres (1930), by John Storrs.

An example of this greets us early on,‭ ‬at the entrance of the exhibit and to the left of the welcome panel.‭ ‬A shiny robot-like expressionless lady stands erect.‭ ‬She is Ceres,‭ ‬the Roman goddess of agriculture,‭ ‬and appears holding a bag of grain in her right hand and stalks of wheat in her left hand.‭ ‬Her hair is in a bun and although her breasts are emphasized,‭ ‬the piece as a whole appears very masculine.‭ ‬Storrs created this nickel-plated model in preparation for a larger piece that was to go on top of the Chicago Board of Trade Building.‭ ‬The final‭ ‬31-inch aluminum sculpture remains over the building today.‭

‬Smooth and curvy,‭ ‬My Daughter in Winter Costume is a stone sculpture featuring a young girl,‭ ‬shy or reserved,‭ ‬with her feet bent slightly inward as if she had just asked to go to the restroom and was still‭ ‬holding it.‭ ‬It is too dark in color for such a young subject,‭ ‬especially when compared to the terracotta‭ ‬Modern Madonna next to it.

This one,‭ ‬a much lighter piece,‭ ‬depicts Mary holding baby Jesus‭; ‬his face buried in her arm while she looks to the side.‭ ‬As the‭ ‬Winter Costume sculpture,‭ ‬she has no facial features,‭ ‬but the lines of her drapery and those suggesting her loose hair let us know she is human.‭

Along with Figurative Abstraction,‭ ‬these are the warmest pieces of the show.‭ ‬In‭ ‬Abstraction,‭ ‬the central figure,‭ ‬a nude boy,‭ ‬is not yet completely freed from the block of marble.‭ ‬He is walking away from us as if returning to the place of his birth:‭ ‬the block.‭ ‬A hand from the right welcomes him and is placed directly between his neck and back,‭ ‬as if to prevent him from looking back at us.‭ ‬From the left,‭ ‬a hand reaches out and touches his left hand.‭

The subtle separation here between background and subject reminds me of Michelangelo's bas-relief‭ ‬Madonna of the Stairs and is the reason why I like it the‭ ‬most.‭ ‬It's not just the warmest piece but the one tempting the artist the most.‭ ‬That it appears incomplete is only a sign of the artist's exercised restraint and control in not carving too much.‭ ‬I love how delicate and less‭ ‬studied it seems,‭ ‬next to the others,‭ ‬even if it’s not a feeling that lasts.‭

The Abbot (1920), by John Storrs.


The museum did a good thing in bringing to West Palm Beach something rarely shown.‭ ‬One appreciates the thought.‭ ‬If given the choice,‭ ‬I would rather have the John Storrs show than not have it.‭ ‬But that’s just curiosity speaking and curiosity doesn’t need three months to be satisfied.‭ ‬Many museum guests could walk this exhibit in‭ ‬15‭ ‬minutes,‭ ‬and that’s the curious ones.‭

Most will not make it to the gallery‭ ‬room displaying Storrs‭’‬ works.‭ ‬Their attention will probably be grabbed by more exciting paintings or the other new show running simultaneously,‭ ‬Nick Cave:‭ ‬Meet Me at the Center of the Earth,‭ ‬which couldn’t be more colorful,‭ ‬energetic and alive.‭

Machine-Age Modernist has,‭ ‬in turn,‭ ‬nothing to do with energy or shock.‭ ‬It has a lot to do with our present day.‭ ‬The mechanization of humanity is after all an ongoing process.‭
I could say the show is boring except for a few intriguing pieces but then I would be saying our present is boring except for few isolated thrilling events.‭

Because I don’t want to make you angry‭ (‬anger is not allowed in a modern perfect world‭)‬,‭ ‬I'll say the show is as captivating as our present time.‭ ‬How much is that‭? ‬I’ll let you decide.‭

John Storrs:‭ ‬Machine-Age Modernist‭ runs through Jan.‭ ‬2‭ ‬at the Norton Museum of Art.‭ ‬Admission:‭ ‬$12,‭ ‬adults‭; ‬$5‭ ‬ages‭ ‬13-21.‭ ‬Hours:‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesdays through Saturdays‭; ‬1‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sundays‭; ‬closed Mondays.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬832-5196‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.norton.org.

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