Guarantees Are Often Worthless is one of Love's narrative pieces.
Guarantees Are Often Worthless is one of Love's narrative pieces.
Courtesy of the CAMH

Junkyard Love

Jim Love's sculptures first emerged after a trip to a Waco junkyard, where he found "huge mounds of junk 20 to 25 feet tall." According to Love, "Within a few minutes, I thought I had discovered heaven." From that point on, he began collecting bits and pieces of metal. He described his early sculptures as "put-togethers," assemblages from found materials.

Those early put-togethers have a quirky charm. You can imagine Love playing with fragments of scrap metal, finding inspiration in their forms. Bradley (1959) is an eight-inch-high silhouette of a small chunky dog cut from pitted metal; one of its hind legs is hinged, and its curled tail is mounted on a spring for greater wag-ability. For The Choir Director from the same year, Love attached a U-shaped piece of filigreed iron to what appears to be an old iron tool handle. The vertically mounted handle creates a head and tapering torso, while the ornamental iron comes up like two arms to evoke the florid gestures of an ostentatious chorus leader.

When you think of sculptors who work in metal, what usually comes to mind are names like Donald Judd or Richard Serra -- ego-abundant artists who work with macho, hard-edged slabs of metal that range from large to massive. But Love's art defies those stereotypes. "Jim Love: From Now On" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston presents a retrospective of work by the late Houston artist. The vast majority of Love's art would be right at home on a tabletop. His sculptures, assembled from found objects or cut from metal, have figurative references that include bears and dogs. At first glance, they could almost be called "cute," until you notice the nuances in Love's work.


"Jim Love: From Now On"

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

Through July 2

His sculptures have dadaist and surrealist overtones, but there is nothing disconcerting or alienating about them. They have a warm and amiable quality even when they're laced with melancholy and black humor. Maybe it's because they are so tactile. Love's welding is skillful and polished to a wonderful smoothness. The works' small scale makes you want to pick them up and feel the weight of them.

Curator Lynn Herbert was working with Love on the exhibition when he died a year ago at the age of 77. After the shock of Love's death, Herbert decided to carry on, and the retrospective became a memorial exhibition.

Love was born in Amarillo in 1927. After a stint in the army with the occupation forces in Kumamoto, Japan, Love attended college on the G.I. Bill. He decided to major in business administration at ber-conservative Baylor, but a random theater class in his last semester changed the direction of his life. He'd been interviewing for accounting positions, but a class with Paul Baker, a renowned theater teacher with a holistic approach to creativity, left him suddenly disenchanted with a business career.

After receiving his BA in business administration, Love worked with Baylor Theater for a year and then made his way to Houston to pursue other theater jobs in lighting and set design.

His creativity and problem-solving skills were in demand and eventually led him to work with visual arts venues on exhibition installation; for example, for Jermayne MacAgy, then director of the Contemporary Arts Museum. Being surrounded by all that art rubbed off, and Love used the skills theaters and museums hired him for to create his first piece, Story of a Bluebird and a Lost Love, in 1956. He welded it the night before jurors convened to choose work for a show at the CAMH. He entered it the next morning, and it was selected.

Love began working with John and Dominique de Menil in 1956, and he was still working with the Menil Collection when he died in 2005. The de Menils became strong supporters and collectors of Love's art. With no formal training as an artist, he was self-taught, learning through his proximity to amazing artworks like those owned by the de Menils. African art, Pre-Columbian art and artists like Duchamp, Magritte, Cornell and Calder were all a part of his list of influences.

Love's work also has folk art overtones. His large 1962 screen, Area Code, functions as a grid of Texas vernacular imagery using cut as well as found objects. Among them are an oil well, a javelina, a cowboy hat on a pedestal, a husband and wife, an iron bed and silhouettes of longhorn cattle. The grid is modernist, but in Love's hands it reads more like a quilt, with each box telling a story.

In later works, found objects are less evident, and Love is cutting and welding metal into little narrative vignettes. Guarantees Are Often Worthless (1984), from the series Tomorrow Is No Solution, depicts a standing bear figure playing ball with a dog. But the bear is staring down at his arm as it lies uselessly on the ground, its hand still clasping the ball. The dog is playfully poised for another go. There's still another arm left.

Then there are wry little pieces like Love's Letter from Santa Claus (1970), a letter and envelope crafted from steel with stamped text. It reads "DEAR JIM, I'M VERY SORRY -- BUT WHAT YOU WANT IS NOT AVAILABLE. MAYBE NEXT TIME -- NICK." You don't know whether he asked for world peace or a hooker. Love's humor is cut with the poignancy of disappointed dreams.

The bluntness and chunkiness of Love's forms, their rounded edges and their stylization all contribute to their geniality. The small scale and frontal orientation of the works gear them for one-on-one interaction. They seem perfect for a desktop, where they could sit at eye level with the viewer. While Love also created a few large-scale works -- a giant jack and a big squarish wooden teddy bear are in the show -- they lack the cozy intimacy that makes the other pieces work so well.

The show is nicely installed using a lot of wall display cases. Not the way contemporary sculpture is usually presented, it works because the majority of Love's sculptures are frontally oriented. And there's something satisfying about seeing all these chummy works grouped together, without widely spaced arty preciousness.

Love's art avoids the grandiose and focuses on the human. His small beautifully made pieces beg to be touched and held. This work isn't trying to awe us or intimidate us; it's trying to make friends.


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