Reductive Sculpture

Carved Boulders, 1995 to 2012

Time is a River
St. Albert's Integrated Community Recognition Project

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This project took ten months to complete. It was installed with a 120 ton crane in a park in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada in 2011. It consists of five carved basalt columns with a combined weight of 40,000 pounds (20 tons). The largest sculpture weighs 11,500 pounds (5.75 tons) and measures 40 inches high by 8 feet long by 32 inches in depth. Onto two of the sculptures, I carved 114 names of local businesses and individuals whose achievements have been recognized by the citizens of St. Albert. Over the next 25 years, approximately 300 more names will be added until each sculpture is filled. The wavy, displaced ribbons that I carved into each boulder suggest the motion of waves.

The image of a river is a well–known metaphor for the passage of time. In an extended sense, a river may also represent the impact that individuals have within their community.

All human activity, constructive or destructive, has wave-like properties because it radiates outward from its source to influence everything around it, like ripples on a pond. These sculptures pay homage to those whose actions have made a positive impact on others and, in so doing, have made their city a wonderful place in which to live.

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Turned by a Pebble's Edge
Athabasca's Centennial Commemorative Project

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When I arrived in the town of Athabasca for my meeting with the Commemorative Sub–Committee, the first thing that I noticed was the natural beauty of the place. Perched on the edge of the mighty Athabasca River, the view from town facing north is breathtaking: the way the hills rise up in the distance while the river traces a graceful curve alongside the town.

The artwork that I wanted to create for this project would be a triptych carved from basalt stone, the same stone that the Egyptians used to make sarcophagi. Technically, I like basalt because it's a very hard stone that's not easily vandalized. Conceptually, I like basalt because it's ubiquitous in our solar system. It's found on the moon, on Venus, Mercury, Mars and possibly on many smaller bodies around the outer planets. Basalt connects our earth to a much larger context: the dust that we are all made out of. The carving was done with diamond saws and grinders (diamond is the only material hard enough to work basalt).

This kind of reductive sculpture is a continuation of the work that I began in 1993 while I was doing my master's degree at the University of Calgary. It's heavily influenced by the work of minimalist sculptors like Richard Serra and David Smith; formalist sculptors like Henry Moore and Constantine Brancusi; environmentalist and site specific artists like Richard Long, Christo and Andy Goldsworthy; Suprematism painters like Kasimir Malevich; and conceptual artists like Robert Morris.

The work has minimalist and conceptual aspects. Minimalism is important because I believe that there is tremendous power in the process of abstraction. By eliminating superfluous details, a laser-like focus can be created on the important stuff. The conceptual part is important because I like to create allegories and allusions. An art object can become "poetry made visible" when representation is allowed to have a vague or ambiguous quality. In other words, a bronze statue of Wayne Gretsky can only represent a specific hockey player at a specific time and in a specific place, but Christo and Jean Claude's "Wrapped Reichstag" can be about a thousand different things to a thousand different people.

My triptych alludes to the quiet and subtle beauty of the surrounding hills and the Athabasca River. The graceful contours of the land and the flowing water are echoed in the gentle rise and fall of each line in each stone. The work is of human scale so that it doesn't impose itself on the space. Large monuments tend to do that. If it were huge it would dominate the space and would be shouting rather than whispering like the distant hills and the water. The work also tries to encompass a larger theme through its title, "Turned by a Pebble's Edge". This is a line from a beautiful poem, "The Two Streams" by Oliver Wendell Holmes (click this link to read the entire poem). In this poem, Holmes talks about how a seemingly inconsequential thing like a drop of water hitting a pebble and, instead of going west to the Pacific Ocean by way of the Columbia River, is redirected east toward the Arctic Ocean and thereby creates the Athabasca River. The history of countless thousands of people and communities owe their existence to a random quirk of geography. This is equally true of almost every human settlement on earth. It's a humbling thought that makes me want to take better care of the land and the water. This is also similar to the "butterfly effect" wherein a small and random occurrence can have a huge impact down the line as the effect becomes multiplied by numerous chaotic systems.

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Earlier Reductive Sculptures

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Above are images of carved boulders that I made between 1994 and 2010. Many of them are housed in private collections in Calgary, Alberta. Others are in private collections as far afield as Newfoundland.

Reductive Sculpture Statement

A recurring element within my work is its tendency to wed the non–material idea or abstraction with the material object or substance so as to emphasize the distinct qualities and properties of both. Implicit in this is the attempt to highlight the unique character of an object in relation to the generalized character of certain ideas or concepts, an example of which are my marked stones. In these works, I have inscribed mathematical shapes – squares, circles, parallel lines – into the surface of each stone, leaving the rest of the object unaltered. In total, a modest portion of each stone is actually manipulated. One may argue that it is necessary to work all of the material; to transform the object, in its entirety, into something better (i.e., more admirable than the stone in its original condition). The term "better", however, can only have relative meaning since any criterion that I apply to this notion is invariably subjective (i.e., a judgment of taste). In other words, how can one say that a stone, in its unaltered state, is less worthy of ones admiration than a stone that has been completely transformed, when equally valid arguments may be made to support either case? In the end, all depends on individual preferences. Thus, rather than trying to change a stone into something better, or into something other than what it is, I prefer to allow it to be what it is, at least inasmuch as the work will allow. In short, my intent is not to "change" these objects into something other than what they are; to do so would be to impose an arbitrary judgment (of taste) on the stone to the degree that the stone, as it is, becomes inconsequential to the work. What I am after, rather, is retention of the object's "is–ness" and the incorporation of this aspect of its Being into the artwork as a primary element. Further, if I were to deny the actuality of the object in itself and completely transform it, I would destroy that aspect of the object that makes it unique; that is, the object would cease to exist as an individuated entity and would, instead, become homogenized material devoid of the original object's history and identity. One could argue that anything that I do to the stone, short of leaving it entirely alone, would be enough of an alteration to change it from one state of Being into that of another. There is validity to this argument. In degrees of change, however, the less drastic the alteration, the greater the retention of the object's original character. In the end, what I am after is some degree of balance between the original character of the object and its altered state. The desire to retain the object's is–ness and to balance this with my own intentions is, of course, one of personal preference and relates to the meaningfulness that I see within the object itself.

Since my intent is not to destroy an existing object in the creation of something new, an alternative approach would be to handle the object in such a way that I bring to awareness some of the qualities or characteristics that are intrinsic to it. One of the most powerful methods of disclosing the fundamental is–ness of something is through contrast. As mentioned in the preceding sections, our dualistic orientation is the unavoidable condition that we, as self–conscious, empirical entities, must endure. How we choose to deal with this condition, however, depends on the individual. One could spend ones whole life becoming adept at transcending ego–boundaries and merging with phenomena (like a Yogi), or one could learn how to "cope" with the terminal condition of being human. In this sense, maintaining a Cartesian perspective of the phenomenal world need not be an obstacle to meaning–building if we maintain balance between opposites and recognize their underlying unity. If one acknowledges that dualism might very well be the natural order of things – the way things are and the way they need to be – and that one cannot change this fundamental aspect of our Being no matter how hard one tries, then one may eventually free oneself to fully experience the dynamism and energy that is intrinsic to opposites. From this perspective, instead of merging opposites into an undifferentiated whole, one may, in fact, choose to emphasize their individual characteristics so as to highlight the tension that exists between them.

To fully experience the energy that is inherent to opposites, Robert Bly, an author and archetypal psychologist, recommends that we position ourselves between them and then "...stretch out our arms and push the opposites as far apart as we can, and then live in the resonating space between them." (Bly, 198: 175) From Bly's point of view, if one desires to maintain the tension that exists between such things as matter and Mind, one would not combine them until they became a single entity, but would instead bring them together and allow each to be what it is. The reconstructive act of bringing matter and Mind together is, in this sense, an attempt to experience both in their full Being while allowing neither one to dominate. For this reason, I approach my sculptures with the determinate principle (or intuitive desire) of balancing the abstracting tendencies of Mind with the actualities of concrete phenomena so that both may be experienced as fully as possible. This is the primary feature of much of my work and seems to occur with or without conscious effort.

The union of stone with mathematical shape is, therefore, not the sort that Burger describes as a disillusionment of the subject "...in favor of an immediacy in which all opposites are blandly dissolved...." (Burger, 1991: 5) The state that Burger envisions is a "watering–down" of Being in which one element dilutes the efficacy of the other; like mixing complimentary colours to create a neutral gray that retains little of the original character of its constituent elements. The kind of unitive experience that I am discussing is more analogous to the effects that one achieves when placing one complimentary colour next to another; the contrast holds both in a dynamic state of tension in which neither colour loses its original properties. Instead of bland disillusionment, juxtaposition emphasizes the richness and vibrancy of each. It is like a marriage in which both partners guild one another through complimentary interaction. Jose Arguelles, an aesthetics philosopher, explains that a wedding such as this is "...synergistic, and not at all like adding two and two and getting only four." (Arguelles, 1975: 286) It is the synergistic effect of uniting contrasting and complimentary properties and ideas that provides my carved stones with their tension and dynamism. It is the unseen force that animates each piece.

With this in mind, it seems appropriate (if not necessary) that I emphasize a stone's character – its concreteness, materiality, and history – by setting complimentary properties – abstraction, non–materiality, and non–history – next to it. In relation to the object's history, one may say that the ordinariness of a stone's appearance is such that it connects the object to "the everyday", while the marks on its surface – the scars, scratches, chips, and cracks – convey a sense of its connection to the past. From this perspective, its weather–worn contours evoke a sense of the larger context of our planetary evolution and the eons of geologic time that have elapsed in forming these objects. Deeper consideration of the stone's every–dayness – its connection not just to the days of the present and recent past, but to all the days that stretch back to the formation of the earth – imbues the stone with a sense of temporality and actuality and, perhaps, even a sense of sacredness. In carving a shape into the stone, I add another mark, a self–conscious mark, that then becomes a part of the stone's history.

In contrast to the stone's history, is the mathematical shapes that I carve into these objects. As mentioned in the first section, one may consider the intellectual abstractions of geometry to be the real–ization of something idyllic. In Platonic terms, the square and circle are transcendent exemplars for things within the phenomenal world; that is, they exist as intelligible prototypes for things that aspire to mathematical perfection. In a Kantian sense, mathematical forms, similar to those of Euclidean geometry, come closer than anything else to giving an a priori sense of space. (Kant, 1900: 32–35) Thus, shapes such as the square and the circle seem to transcend all place and history. They seem to have an unconditioned quality. They appear to exist apart from other conditions in an eternal space that contrasts with the finitude and history of concrete matter. By incorporating these idealized shapes within the crude materiality of natural stone (and other unrefined materials), I create situations in which the precision of the mathematical shape (the abstracted concept) contrasts and compliments the imprecision of the material object (phenomenal reality), and vise versa. From this perspective, the unconditioned shape embodies the principle of order and harmony and contrasts with the conditioned stone which, in turn, embodies the notion of chaos and circumstance. It is in this sense that one may consider my carved stones to be "abstract idea" set beside "concrete material".

In short, the meaning that I am constructing with my carved stones is of an extra–ordinary kind. By placing a mathematical shape on a stone whose organic contours are marked with the history of its Becoming, I am emphasizing the contingency of presence (the stone) within the context of conscious Being and the quest for something ideal (mathematical perfection). On a more transcendent level, the wedding of matter with Mind is an attempt to real–ize the infinite unknown (Existence) that exists apart from and as part of the finite known (the phenomenal world). It is an attempt to envision the counterpart of temporal Being: eternal non–being.

The above statement is an excerpt from Shaping Consciousness, A Written Accompaniment to the MFA Thesis Exhibition Dreaming With Open Eyes by Terry Reynoldson. 1995, pp. 71–80

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