Max Yeh


José and I sometimes go to Big River to pick up wood. Most of the time he burns it for heat, but sometimes he notices that a piece of washed up wood deserves something better. Its age or deep red color, its interesting twist of growth, the inner or outer movements of its surface, the touch of its grain will make José sequester the piece for careful drying and trigger the beginning of imaginings that end as sculpture.

These excursions, on this coast so common, such an ancient practice, have seemed to me like mythic experiences, for if we think of that originary moment in the human past when man or woman first conceived the idea of sculpture, that upsurge of making and forming with which the species has now so long lived, surely we have to think of a time before hunting, before planting, very possibly even before speaking, when men and women and children gathered their lives out of the world around them. We can imagine the first stone picked up to be used as a tool, its heft and fit in the hand, and we can imagine that other first stone, which had the weight and the feel desired but which didn't fit until chipped and rubbed into shape. All the stone mauls, frangible obsidian spear heads, wedged scrapers, groove-girdled axe heads, the thousands of chipped bird points and arrow heads, the pointed digging sticks, and bone needles we see today in anthropological museums bear imbedded in them still that first sculpted shape with its talismanic qualities arising from joining caressing labor with necessity and method and the mimesis of natural objects.

So, too, the sculpture José has made in recent years seems to carry that originary imprint, as if the idea of sculpture were being re-invented, as if modern sculpture were being returned to its source, or as if in his own work José were recovering some first moment of desire and commitment. The line of redwood pebbles has this quality. They are water-tumbled stones whose shapes evoke the shingle beaches we pace slowly looking for that perfect glistening stone to pick up for God knows what reason. That some of these wooden pebbles are faceted suggests that the wearing motions of external energy -- wind, water, gravity -- have not only made themselves visible, materialized themselves in these forms but have also revealed, brought to the surface, the inner order of crystalline structure. They, too, though they look so geometric and thus man-made, imitate found objects.

But the facets lead in another direction, for they are, after all, man-made and geometric, so that in them what is an abstract invention of the human intellect (geometry) is identical with the structural order of nature. In them what is man-made is not distinguished from what is natural, and the irony that these natural stone shapes should be man-made and in wood no longer separates the human world from nature but rather confirms their identity, just as that original moment when sculpture first came into being affirmed the naturalness of human invention. Humans no longer existed as an element of nature but participated in the world as nature.

So the pieces that José finds come not just naturally tumbled out of the ocean, but often they are marked by geometric human action. They are discovered in refuse piles of milling operations or in heaps of firewood, and their histories of human industry, those saw cuts, are respected by José as much as their natural histories in his half-sculpting and half-collaging method of work.

These flat surfaces are everywhere in José’s recent body of work. They are the cut-off arms and legs in his series of torsos. They are the mountainsides of his jagged pinnacles. They are the sea in the archipelago piece. They are often gessoed and painted. Above all they are the carefully shaped bases that are so integral to his sculptures, truly supporting the pieces by posing the riddle of curvature against the flatness of a planar surface. The flatness is decisive; that is, it looks like decision itself, willful, methodical but sudden, the result of industrial machinery. José s curved surfaces never look decisive. They move and change constantly, and even when I see the tools' marks, even though I know that they are products of decisions, I see them in the illusion of more tactile values. In this sense, the planar surfaces represent or figure for me the decision, the calculation, the method, the precision that is behind the illusion of the curved surfaces, and they reverse the play between the surfaces. What appears at first to juxtapose the changing world of becoming against the ideal geometric realm of being turns out to implicate each in the other.

The Platonic terms of being and becoming make sense in thinking about José s sculpture, because so many of the recent works either are parts of series or are made up of serial forms, Even singleton pieces such as the wave form or the islands were conceived as parts of series, Serial imagery, like Monet's cathedrals or haystacks, is experimental. A series reaches for something that is abstract and ideal, an idea so immaterial and ineffable that its satisfaction is not entirely grasped within the single work of art. The more perfectly objectified the work of art is as an object, the more that perfection breathes an incompletion, a gesture towards another variation, another form, another work of art yet to be made. The serial artist, thus, is like a seer, who only succeeds in penetrating beyond the present into the future by renouncing contingency to pursue vision. Each piece in a series becomes at once a work of art and a shadow of something else.

In this is-and-is-not play between being and becoming, José’s work is again like that first tool which is our ur-sculpture. The polished stone hatchet-head's form both dominates the material, giving that material a substantive presence, and is itself subservient to some idea of function, an idea that generates always another and another hatchet-head. Similarly, I see in José 's serial imagery materiality in its energetic, creational state of becoming, a protean celebration of natural change and metamorphosis, and at the same time, I sense a certain renunciation or, perhaps somewhat less absolute, a restlessness, a certain distancing that makes room for the dry wit, irony, and metaphor that motivate many of the sculptures and which always point to other possibilities or to ideas for which the work of art is only a specific instance of actualization.

The method here is driven by a constant challenge to invention, a challenge José poses to himself and to his viewers, to continue the replication, to find other solutions to the difficult problems of spatial assemblage, to seek for the surprise of variations, to satisfy the multiple conditions of respect for the given. I'm reminded sometimes of Valery's poetry when I think of Josés method. For Valery, the pleasure of poetry was in the conundrum, in the problem solving intellect pursuing an ideal. He delighted in the external conditions of discovery: to find a word that would contain certain vowel sounds and certain consonants, that meant a certain thing but implied another, have a given number of syllables, be feminine, at least six conditions, he said. José’s found objects are like words; more than just matter to be sculpted, they bring with them a history, a meaning, but the meanings are treated as added formal conditions. The whole puzzling task of finding fitting solutions to spatial, textural, gravitational, and formal problems enlivens the imagination until the resolution seems an euphoria of freedom. The constraint brings liberation and possibility.

The sculpture seems unusually engaging in ways beyond the beckoning of its tactile surfaces and perspectival depths. I remember an early sculpture by José in which the spectator could arrange the abstract pieces. In these new works, this invitation is repeatedly tendered in the imagination (in fact, the pieces are all bolted in place), and this offer to play with the building blocks forms a powerful attraction to the pieces. As a result of this sense of participation, the feeling of freedom, surprise, and wit that so distinguish the works is strongly shared. Shared, too, is a centering solidity of self-knowledge. In the past, Josés art has seemed to be on many paths. I remember a series of exquisite Michaux-like abstract ideographics, Cubistic collages, elegant formal abstract sculptures in the way of Brancusi, Gottlieb-like compositions generated by replicating simple linear forms, representational sculptures with generalized and simplified forms, surreal assemblages like Duchamps or Cornell, psychedelic abstractions and fragmentations that attempt to free the unconscious. He has worked in many media and many genres. But in the recent sculptures, these different paths have all come together, or rather, the recent work shows the past to be all one path, the elegant formal sensibility at one with the surreal jest, the reverence of landscape commensurate with the pointedness of found art. In this way, the recent pieces celebrate the continuity of José's life, of the regular and prolonged pursuit of art which internalizes, gives habits to processes of dedication as it externalizes pleasure and understanding.