If you have ever drawn a doodle or design in the air with your finger, then wished it could have been captured in solid form, you would find a kindred spirit in Bruce Beasley. Using the capabilities of virtual reality allowed the Oakland-based Beasley to do just that, and the resulting sculptures and collages are now on display at the Pamela Walsh Gallery in Palo Alto.
Entitled "Momentum," the exhibition consists of two recent series; Aeolis, which are three-dimensional metal sculptures and Aurai, two-dimensional collages that correspond to the Aeolis series. The show, on view through Nov. 23, is a bit of a departure for the gallery, which usually focuses on paintings, prints and works on paper.
Walsh said that a visit to Beasley's West Oakland studio compound "completely blew my mind" and was the impetus for a solo exhibition in her gallery. "Bruce and I developed a strong, professional relationship, discussing the evolution of his long, prolific career, the philosophy behind his creative practice and the vital role of technology and innovation in his recent works, including the Aeolis sculptures and the Aurai collages."
"Bruce is still going strong after six decades and has remained curious, continuing to find new ways to express his visual language," she added.
The venerable Beasley has the distinction of being one of the youngest artists — he was about 23 at the time — to have a work included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. He was recently honored with a 60-year retrospective at the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey.
Beasley, now 83, has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career due in no small part to the fact that he has always embraced change and innovation. Born in Los Angeles in 1939, he attended Dartmouth College briefly before transferring to University of California at Berkeley. He arrived at a pivotal time, when classmates like Peter Voulkos were experimenting with materials and techniques that resulted in a revival of interest in the medium of sculpture. His early work took advantage of the industrial scrap that he found around his Oakland warehouse, but soon he was experimenting with cast aluminum.
With the mantra that "technology is handmaiden to creativity," Beasley then explored cast acrylic sculpture created through computer-aided design (CAD), a tool has also used to capture his motions in virtual reality software and bring the resulting shapes to life for his Aeolis and Aurai series. He is probably best known for his large-scale public pieces, created in the 1970s and 1980s, that are constructed of burnished stainless steel. ("Vanguard," located in front of Stanford University's Law School, is a local example).
The artist is quick to point out, however, that technical innovation is not his primary motivation. Like most sculptors, he is in a constant battle with gravity and, specifically, how to make heavy objects that seem light and airborne. At the heart of his work, he said in an email interview, is "the emotional language of shape" which he addresses using material, color and texture.
The sculptures that comprise the Aeolis series are inspired by Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, although they are not intended to be a narrative expression of the story. In brief, Aeolis gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds but the west wind during his prolonged, 10-year journey home after the Trojan War. The gallery visitor does not need this backstory to understand or appreciate the sculptures, which convey an overwhelming sense of movement. The nine sculptures of varying sizes and surface treatments (stainless, cast bronze and nickel-plated) consist of lengths of metal that twist, turn, fuse into one another and combine to create a cohesive whole. Some have a vertical orientation, as the elements join and rise to an inevitable apex. Others, like Aeolis 14 (the pieces are individually numbered) are on a horizontal plane. Beasley wants viewers to bring their own interpretation and ideas to the pieces and, for me, this piece called to mind a sprinter about to propel forward.
The light, looping, gestural forms found in Aeolis 12 seem antithetical to sculpture made of cast bronze but that is just what the artist was hoping to achieve. Beasley said, "I use VR (virtual reality) to explore shapes because it is very spontaneous and allows me to use my own physical gestures to create shapes in a way no other process does. But it is a kind of ghost world where they begin, but I insist the sculptures move out of and into the world we inhabit."
This is a stunning installation, with the white walls and gray stands providing a neutral backdrop for the strong forms and shapes of the sculptures. The smaller pieces, displayed so that the viewer can walk around them, form a path to the focal point, Aeolis 7. This is a commanding presence, standing almost 8 feet in height, with curving strands that erupt from the base, become tangled and fraught in the center, only to rise like triumphant arms at the top. Although we cannot touch the smooth surface (oils on the hand are detrimental), we somehow instinctively know what it would feel like. Noted Beasley, "Sculpture has more practical limitations than painting, but sculptors feel there is a deeper connection for both the creator and the viewer that comes from sculpture being a part of the same actual haptic (pertaining to touch) world as ourselves."
A counterpoint to the three-dimensional pieces (but also part of the same VR creative process) is a series of six collages entitled Aurai. These gray-and-white wall pieces resulted from the artist making marks captured by VR that were then cut out and pieced together on paper. Once he had achieved the form and fluid movement he set out to capture, the collages were printed in ink on Dibond (aluminum composite) panels. They are technically considered prints with limited editions.
Like their 3D counterparts, the collages have shapes that resemble ribbons of silver, curling, climbing, twisting, turning and, sometimes, joining. Beasley described the process that resulted in the collages: "They are parts of images that came out of the rather complicated process of moving sculptures out of the VR space. It's as though they said, 'Hey, look at me,' and so I did and they led to those pieces. They are art works that made their appearance from another process and I am glad they did."
"Bruce Beasley: Momentum"is on view through Nov. 23 at Pamela Walsh Gallery, 540 Ramona St., Palo Alto. For more information, visit pamelawalshgallery.com.