Monday, February 2, 2009

REPRINT: Hugh Townley "Against the Grain"

The Fleming Museum, Burlington
Through March.
by Rob Hitzig, reprinted by permission from his blog.

I recently went to the Fleming Museum in Burlington to see the Hugh Townley show. Hugh taught art at Brown for many years and retired to Bethel, VT in the late 90's. He died last year and the Fleming was kind enough to put together a retrospective show. I had seen his work a couple of years ago at the (VT) Governor's Office and was very impressed so I'm glad to get to a chance see more of it now.

His work is influenced by his many trips to India as well as other world travels and by Native American culture. I'm not sure what all the symbols mean or what they represent, I just think they look cool. I also like how his work is simultaneously both primitive and refined. For the most part, he leaves saw marks on the wood, not bothering to sand and smooth the surfaces, and his shapes often look rough as well, like he was just winging it as he made them; but he combines a complicated series of shapes together and everything fits perfectly. It gives you the sense that there was a grand plan before he started but at the same time it is very playful, designed like a child's puzzles but with texture. They look like he had a lot of fun making them.

Upon entering the museum there is a sign that asks visitors to ask permission to take photographs, which I dutifully did. The permission giver wasn't available and I was told that someone would get back to me, which they never did, but since I followed the instructions (the sign didn't say I needed to receive permission) I figured it was okay to take some images.
This one above, is unusual in that it is made with obiche, an African wood. Most of his sculptures are made with mahogony, often with very large boards that you would have a very hard time getting these days. This one is also unusual in being pretty small, about 18 inches wide. I think it is one of the early ones of this style so it was probably a bit of an experiment. It is titled, "Dark Night - Tuba City." Why did he use a light wood if it represents a dark night? Don't know. What do the pieces mean? Don't know. He seemed to use arrows a lot, they must have meant something to him but I don't have a clue what it is.

These 3 are early pieces (1950's?) The one in the middle has the same "rounds"
on the back side of the opposite half. They remind me of the two piece recliner chairs
that are made in West Africa, only without the seat part. He did travel to Africa at some point but not sure when or how often; maybe he was familiar with those chairs.

This one (below) was made after the death of Willem de Kooning and is named after him,
"deK is Dead."
They probably knew each other, being about the same age. I assume “deK” was a nickname his friends called him. There is a paint brush in the lower left corner, you can also make out a table and maybe a can of paint. It is an interesting 3-d monotonal painting made with wood rather than paint. Definitely more painterly than sculptural.

This one, "A Brief History of Haley's Comet," was completed in 1984, around the time of Haley's last visit to our section of the solar system. I like his use of wormy mahogany in the lower section.

The piece in the middle (at left) is also one of his early sculptures. A fun use for a big block of oak. Maybe it was designed as a handy storage space for salad forks? I especially like the plywood pieces seen in the background. They were part of a series done most recently. As he carved through the plywood you see the bold grain patterns and black glue lines. It gives you a new perspective on construction grade plywood. The painted wood piece to the right is also a relatively new piece. I wonder why he started experimenting with color, most of his work is very monotonal, maybe grandchildren?