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Between Here and Heaven


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Perimeter Gallery

Walking into the Fred Nagelbach show at Perimeter Gallery is like entering a fantastic cartoon or book illustration: the two main rooms are filled with his dreamed architecture and tool sculptures. In the first room is a group of rooftop sculptures (the "Turm Series"--Turm means "tower" in German), six variations on what might adorn the top of a house or a church: cupolas, steeples, spires, and vanes. Some of the sculptures are made of traditional roofing materials, like cedar or asphalt shingles, but there is one of foam rubber coated with polyester resin, and the apex of another is embellished with a bronze garlic bulb and a real carrot. The mix of materials is suggestive, even compelling, and masterfully handled by the artist.

The first sculpture to the left as one enters the gallery is a five-and-a-half-foot-tall elongated funnel shape sheathed entirely in red cedar shingles. This piece bristles with energy, gesturing defiantly to the heavens. Nearby is an eight-foot-high tower with a bullet-shaped green-shingled top and a cylindrical corrugated-iron lower half. This piece stands a bit uneasily, as if the countdown has begun and it's about to blast off for the same place that the other shingle tower aims at. This steeple-airship looks like the perfect vehicle for travel to a fantasy place, a place where you might converse with deceased relatives, children unborn, or the dog you had as a child.

Many sculptors have used architecture or furniture as a point of departure, even as a source of inspiration. Margaret Wharton's work revolved around chairs for a time; more recently she has turned to books. Charles Simonds builds tiny houses--for "little people"--resembling the pueblos of southwest Native Americans. In the Site Cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art, one wall is devoted to a Simonds installation that allows the viewer to imagine a culture, time, and place altogether removed from the urban experience. H.C. Westermann worked extensively with the shapes of architecture and domestic objects, building small houses as containers for feelings and dreams. Most seemed to be nightmares, in fact, which tended to leak out through the windows.

By choosing the cupola or steeple as a reference point, Nagelbach has provided himself with a vast, multifaceted source of themes, which he skillfully explores but by no means exhausts. Like the hat on the head of a well-dressed gentleman or the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae, the cupola functions partly to complete the composition, an exercise in stacking forms. And just as the gentleman's hat won't keep his ears warm, and the cherry on the sundae doesn't taste very good, the cupola is not a place to be but an object to look up to.

Another sculpture of the "Turm Series," the smallest, least massive of the group, has a tapered hexagonal stonelike base topped by a narrow lead form that comes to a point like a chisel. The narrow converging lines are like those of a church steeple, which sweep the eye to heaven and provide a conduit between the here and now and the hereafter. But the sculpture is also like a tool, designed perhaps to cut a mortise in the sky, into which can be carefully fitted the hopes and desires of those bound by earth.

Carving a figurehead sculpture for a great sailing ship of the last century was an honor reserved for the finest craftsmen. A similar special attention was given to the design and construction of the cupola at the top of a house; it required a different set of considerations than the front door or main stairs. Although the cupola does not take a human shape, like its counterpart on a ship it does act as a watchman, representing the personality of the structure below as well as receiving and neutralizing forces that can't be seen or grasped. The cupola is traditionally the place for a lightning rod, the sacrificial place that attracts a dangerous force to itself in order to protect its surroundings. It is the place where the vane revolves, the rooster or ship that steers the house through a prevailing breeze or sustains it in a thunderstorm. And the cupola is a place for bells to ring out the hours of the day or toll the passing event.

Another sculpture in the "Turm Series" has a top half shaped something like a banana, that is covered with a deep blue striped and textured paint to look like an illustration of the universe in a grade-school textbook. The lower half is shaped like a conga drum and constructed in the same way, with closely fitted wooden staves. Taking a closer look at the lower portion, I noticed the distinct marks of a hand plane used to shape the slightly tapering cylindrical form. To cut a soft wood like cedar without tearing requires a blade as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel. Nagelbach uses his plane confidently and has the sense not to sand the form smooth but to leave the faceted surface intact. Like Simond's tiny pueblos, Nagelbach's sculptures can transport the viewer to a different place and time.

As I looked at this sculpture, the rhythmic whistling sound of a plane and fresh ribbons of wood piling up on the floor came to mind. I caught a whiff of the cedar and was reminded of my grandfather's walk-in cedar closet, with its straw boater and starched flat collars seemingly preserved forever. That was a time when carpenters still knew how to use hand tools and build cupolas, and often did it dressed in high collars and elegant hats.

(I later found out from Linda Glass, the gallery's assistant director, that Nagelbach had concealed bags and open dishes of fragrant, soggy cedar shavings behind a partition near the front of the gallery. On the back side of the partition the artist had troubled to hang some of his tool sculptures, for the benefit of passersby or the window washers.)

The last of the "Turm Series" (number six) most certainly falls into the vane category. A stubby, hexagonal, asphalt shingle-covered cone is truncated and capped by a cast aluminum bracket that supports a creature not easily identified as man or beast. A blue, rotatable kind of fish for the air, the figure seems meant to act as a vane, but its odd appendages make it seem that a force other than the wind must rotate it. This vane element is carved from a log with one branch left intact to form a limb in the manner of Welsh sculptor David Nash, but Nagelbach's vane creature seems more relaxed--half swimming, half basking. At the end of its tail and its one limb are conical pointed forms that are mounted in sockets and therefore can be moved.

These fat appendages like big thorns or seedpods could not grasp like hands nor could they act like flippers or wings, so their purpose at first is ambiguous. Later, while investigating the "mallets" hanging on the partition facing the street, I saw a similar round pointed form, this time mounted on a handle like an adze. Its purpose could only be to poke or pierce. On the gallery's price list/description sheet, under the "Mallet Series" heading, was the word dibble. A dibble, according to my dictionary, is a pointed implement used to make holes in the ground for seeds. So Nagelbach's dibble mallet is a swingable version of the digging sticks used by earlier cultures to plant.

With the vane sculpture and its dibble "hands," Nagelbach recalls for us a time when farmers relied on their experience and intuition to forecast the weather. A certain fluttering of the leaves, a feeling in the bones, and the vane on the barn offered important clues to the daily decisions of agriculture. In an age when we're suffocating ourselves and spoiling this delicate earth, we would benefit from a look and a prayer to the swimming dibble vane, which might signal the how and when for the seeds of recovery.

In the second room of the gallery is the "Mallet Series": two groups of tools that hang from ample boards on the wall and a third group of three freestanding mallet sculptures. Here Nagelbach has provided the viewer with the various tools that the builders of giant shingled submarines or airships might employ. Some of the mallets look quite handy indeed. The "commander," a name given to the largest hammer in the shop, is here a huge mallet with a steel ringed head. It seems more than adequate for the stubbornest of persuadees. Other of his mallets took like they could drive nails around corners, and one seems perfect for swatting the fly that has been buzzing the kitchen since last summer. To make these tools, Nagelbach has adeptly combined his own and manufactured tool handles with the various invented heads, some made of wood, others cast in aluminum.

The tallest of the freestanding mallet sculptures has a stubby octagonal wooden base topped by a dome shape out of which rises what looks like a peavey handle. A peavey, invented in the last century by Joseph Peavey, was a steel pike with a pivoting hook mounted on a stout four-and-a-half-foot wooden handle. They were invaluable to lumberjacks, who used them to roll the green logs, which were too heavy to lift. Nagelbach's peavey sculpture resembles Claes Oldenburg's steel baseball bat on Madison, but while Oldenburg's bat can be read as a monument to a great sport or to the forces of coercion, Nagelbach's standing mallet is a monument to leverage, evoking the adage "With a lever long enough and a place to stand, I could move the earth."

Also in the second room is a group of four pieces called Turtle, Tortoise, Terrapin, Fry Pan, These are thick disk shapes low to the floor and roughly chopped out of wood (hard sugar maple) with an extension protruding from one side resembling a neck or handle. Many of Nagelbach's forms, and the techniques he uses to achieve them, remind the viewer of the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi; this group in particular refers to a 1947 Brancusi called Flying Turtle. Brancusi's turtle is a smooth marble inverted-saucer shape with a sleek hull-like protrusion on one side. While Brancusi's Flying Turtle seems to hurtle through space though it stands still, Nagelbach's turtles move at a different pace, like rocks making their long journey from mountaintop to sea. Nagelbach carefully orders the words of his title: he starts with the turtle--a creature that lives in the sea--followed by the tortoise, the land-based version. Then comes the terrapin, which is a tortoise or turtle suitable for eating, and last comes the fry pan. I remembered a documentary film by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in which a Kalahari bushman and his son discover a tortoise basking in the sun. They waste no time but dig a small pit, light a fire, and overturn the tortoise, squirming, into the impromptu camp stove, rendering it a terrapin and fry pan in one deft action.

Three other floor sculptures in the second room look like creatures balancing forms on their snouts. These, the most anthropomorphic of Nagelbach's work, exude a struggle for equilibrium. She'll Balance is a squat two-legged form roughly hewn from bleached sugar maple. This low shape seems to lunge forward, as a ball player might dive for a tag, in an attempt to keep the long vertical three-sided football form on its nose standing up. In the piece next to it, See I'll Balance, also rough cut in maple, the figure confidently balances a round elongated football shape horizontally on its snout with a gesture of proud accomplishment.

At a time when artists are hyperaware of current trends in art, the market, and whether they will become stars, Nagelbach's work is refreshingly original and unaffected. His sources and concepts do not come just from the passing scene. Instead he offers us an excursion not only into his own character but into the character of objects and those who made them in the recent but distant past.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Perimeter Gallery, Inc..

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