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By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
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Wood, wood and more wood is at the center of James Surls's art. Eyes stare out from charred trunks; chunks of wood are carved into the shapes of petals and knives; twisted tree limbs become figures. The artist's symbol-laden, woodsy surrealism is showcased in "James Surls: The Splendora Years 1977-1997" at the Blaffer Gallery. Curated by Terrie Sultan, the gallery's director, the exhibition focuses on work from the artist's years in Splendora, 45 miles north of Houston. But the significance of Surls's years in the town isn't restricted to his work -- it means something to the Houston art community as well.
"Counterculture utopianism" is how Sultan characterizes the spirit of Surls's Splendora compound. The artist wound up there when he moved from Dallas to Houston in 1976 to teach at the University of Houston. His wife, artist Charmaine Locke, found a large tract of land in nearby Splendora with a tiny 20- by 20-foot cabin. In his exhibition catalog essay "The Road to Splendora," Surls writes about the place in the Piney Woods with his trademark mythic romanticism: "It was paradise at its best, filled not only with the bloom of flowered beauty, but also with all forms of life, from that which flies to that which crawls. We now were in the primordial cauldron; what more could I ask? Charmaine had sparked my ready tender [sic], and I now stood burning in the center of paradise, imbued with glory and filled with the belief that I could make tangible any and all that I could conceive."
Over a 20-year period, the Splendora property grew into a compound with numerous buildings, among them a 12,000-square-foot studio filled with work and packed with Surls's art materials -- things like the entire root system from a tree. Surls and Locke had seven daughters, and the sprawling compound housed not only them but, at turns, relatives, visiting artists and studio assistants. Surls built the entire spread with help from his brother and bands of friends, artists and students. It became not only a place for him to make work and raise a family but also an art outpost that hosted an influential array of artistic endeavors and events -- not to mention a whole lot of parties.
In the catalog's afterword, Locke writes about Splendora in equally romantic but slightly more pragmatic terms. She addresses the array of wildlife -- coral snakes in the kitchen -- and the woman with seven children concedes, "There were huge challenges inherent in our life there. Living like pioneers in the last quarter of the twentieth century was totally naïve: although we did have electricity, to live on the Gulf Coast with no air conditioning or central heat for ten years was questionable. To hand-build from the ground up every structure there was unbelievable."
Surls grew up in East Texas, and his mother, an elder in the Cherokee Nation, was interested in Native American ritual. His father was a carpenter. At age five, Surls chopped down his first tree with the help of a hand ax and his seven-year-old brother. The natural forms of wood are intrinsic to Surls's sculptures, and the Splendora property became the perfect laboratory for his work. In pieces like How Far Back(1989), the organic flow of the figure's torso and limbs stems from Surls's careful selection of branches.
Surls's work has a sort of psychologically shamanistic thing going on. In All Around (1993), a chunk of tree trunk has been roughly planed into a long house form. The wood is blackened, and the stump of a branch grows up from the top. The end is pale wood honed into a point like a horn, and yellow eyes stare out from the wood at its base. The piece conjures something lurking and primal, but not necessarily ominous.
The best of Surls's sculptures are the ones so free-flowing and uninhibited that they have to be hung from the ceiling, their limbs twisting in space. Dia de Muerte (1991) is a collection of snaking forms with glowing eyes that seems to writhe through the air like some unknown entity. An uncharacteristically overtly political work is the Reagan-era figure Big Man Going to the Arms Race (1984). The curving figure boldly floats in the air with arms and legs splayed, sporting a disproportionately large erect phallus.
Surls's drawings and prints are also included in the show. The drawings are direct and unfussy, with thick, workmanlike lines and surreal, stream-of-consciousness imagery -- spirals, eyes, animals and hands. But there's something about all that symbolism that seems especially labored in the context of the drawings. In a video produced by the Blaffer, Surls explains works such as A Look through the thorn tree (1979), in which the "cow symbolizes a woman" and the "female matriarchal world being led by a child." It just isn't that interesting or rewarding to pick through the symbolism of his drawings. And the drawings themselves, more often than not, aren't that visually satisfying -- they may spring from his subconscious, but they also have to operate as artwork. Formally, Surls's woodcuts, with their white lines against a black ground, are much more considered and successful.
There's a lot of earthy hippiedom in Surls's work that can make it seem a little quaint to later, more cynical generations less enamored with Joseph Campbell-esque ideas. And while Surls is a widely beloved figure, his writing, with its self-conscious romanticizing of his place in the world and the sweeping romantic view of his own work, can be a little hard to take.
But Surls did become -- and remains -- a mythic figure in the Houston art scene, even though he has since abandoned Splendora for Colorado. More influential than his art is the tremendous impact he had on the local community through the creative force of his personality. The recent 25th anniversary of Lawndale Art Center, which Surls founded while a professor at UH, is a case in point. His influence as a teacher and as the creator of an open experimental environment for art has had a ripple effect. Directly and indirectly, Surls impacted a generation of Houston artists, in addition to his chunk of the Piney Woods.