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Sculptural Roots

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Where does art come from? Most artworks spring from an artist's deeply personal responses to a world that is largely impersonal. Life is always a learning experience, but artists are often motivated to make art by a feeling that there is something they need to resolve, whether it's unique to themselves or part of some broader issue. Either way, an artist is someone who puts his or her own stamp on the world by transforming experience into a personal mythology of some sort.

Sometimes experience is conditioned by external factors that we have no control over, such as race, ethnicity, nationality and the like. In the case of sculptor Martin Payton, ethnicity and ancestry loom large. A scion of a legendary family of New Orleans musicians, Payton harks to Africa and African-American culture for his creative inspiration, yet European and American modernism figure strongly in the mix. Considering his family background, it comes as no surprise that music, especially jazz, is a factor as well. In that sense, Payton's forebears might be said to include Henri Matisse and Thelonius Monk, David Smith and Sonny Stitt, Robert Motherwell and John Coltrane.

This has been Payton's M.O. all along, but his work is always evolving. The striking thing about this show is how subtly these pieces blend African as well as classical modernist influences, in almost equal measure. Camarillo is emblematic, an abstraction composed of a steel crescent attached to a horizontal crosspiece with three little rods at the end suggesting tuning spindles on a string instrument. Attached at a diagonal angle is a freeform design like one of those airy Matisse cutouts. Overall, it harks to Matisse, Miro and the traditional carved sculpture of West Africa, while remaining quintessentially Payton.

Kilimanjaro is a personal favorite, an edgy concoction of steel disks, rods and serrated cross-pieces. Radiating animist energy and a mojo of its own, it evokes the tribal animal masks of Mali, while simultaneously striking a distinctly modernist tone. Also strong is Thelonius, one of the larger, free-standing pieces in which disks and diagonals topped off by an up-thrust crosspiece suggest the union of a water buffalo and a piece of farm machinery, a mix more typical of Payton's earlier stuff. It may not be obvious, but a lot of the steel used in these pieces had a previous, more utilitarian life in the workaday world. Such things are sensed more than seen. Payton's style has become very polished over the years, with subtlety and virtuosity taking precedence over the raw vitality of his earlier efforts.

For Texas sculptor Jesus Moroles, it's all about granite, a material that he regards as one of the most essential ingredients of life on earth. His work also harks to modernist as well as more anthropological influences, which he blends into a seemingly seamless amalgam. His current show reinforces some of the trends seen last time, namely more figurative pieces mingling with his traditional monumental geometry. And while there has always been a hint of something Aztec in Moroles' vision, he may be a bit more eclectic in his references this time around.

Broken Earth Wheel is a 15-inch red granite shaft on a black granite base. Sitting atop its gallery pedestal, it recalls those Indian Hindu fertility symbols at first, but then you notice that the shaft has been incised with fissures reflecting Moroles' view that the Earth is broken, in trouble. Surprisingly, it turns when you push it, rather like a Tibetan prayer wheel, which the artist claims as one of his inspirations for the piece. Tres Mujeres is very different, an arrangement of three flat, 10-foot-tall granite female figures seemingly swaying around a central axis, as if around an invisible Maypole. Here the tone is almost Matissean, with figuration reduced to suggestive lines, in a whimsical departure from his usual architectonic geometry. Even so, the show's tone was set by the numerous Broken Earth works in which granite appears carved to resemble rock formations, eroded and precariously balanced, as if awaiting the latest tremor from Mt. St. Helens to set them crashing down in a rollicking rockslide. It's a foreboding sensibility that gives these pieces their quiet drama, a portentous quality like the uncanny calm before a storm.

All that art: Thelonius hearkens to Martin Payton's earlier works, a free-standing piece suggesting the union of a water buffalo and a piece of farm machinery.
  • All that art: Thelonius hearkens to Martin Payton's earlier works, a free-standing piece suggesting the union of a water buffalo and a piece of farm machinery.

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