Aaron Spangler: Homeschool (essay by Kari Adelaide)
Aaron Spangler’s latest work, displayed for the first time in Homeschool at Horton Gallery, carves out a territory where the personal and sacred are interlocked and consecrated. Spangler’s immersion in rural prairie and the north woods, on 150 acres near Park Rapids, Minnesota, has again drawn out archetypal inspiration tied to the surrounding landscape. Spangler’s local predilections have morphed his works into timeless divine shrines, with oblique forms that cascade into memory, and chiseled lines that are charged with ancient orientations. We catch glimpses of unmoored epiphanies; with starry etches that emanate from multiple fixed points. Spangler’s sculptures include ensconced images such as disembodied hands that pray, concentric circles, a pointing finger, and markings that meander with a serpentine radiance only to disappear. Stump Mountain is emblematic of the power of Spangler’s latest sculptures. A large block of bas-relief carved wood depicts a folksy mountain; it is fluidly beset with a mass of etched lines. The piece has the effect of grounding the viewer in a physical sense, as the gravity of the mountain is palpable. It carries in it an idiosyncratic gesture, as a familiar image that still contains complex and highly tuned associations with mysticism. Stump Mountain, enlivened with the ancient tradition of woodcarving, recalls the mythic associations of the iconic “cosmic mountain,” or “universal pillar” described by Mircea Eliade as an “image that expresses the connection between heaven and earth; hence it is believed to be at the center of the world…an axis mundi connecting the earth with heaven.”*
In Spangler’s Homeschool, a sculptural axis mundi comes forth within a collection of objects that, together, tend to find connections between the earth-bound self and the mythic other. The secular and sacred are interwoven together, revealing a pantheon of meaning. Abstract modernism is referenced by a vexing complexity of marks, and in the spaces where images happen to appear, they are overlapped and buried. These sculptures, in contrast to Spangler’s earlier works, embody less specific narratives and are unbound to a particular place and time. Rather, the works function similarly to the traditional wayside shrines of saints, spiritual totems and carved ancestor figures, enacting divine mediation.* Over plentiful years of an intensely sustained, self-taught practice, Spangler has mastered the ability to create physical objects that become markers of personal and collective consciousness. With most of these works, Spangler starts with the idea of form, at times touching flame to wood and sanding the char away, achieving smoothness, and arriving at a shape. After this shape was fixed, he applied low relief woodcuts; with very free and loose chisel marks, traced from patterns that he laid out indiscriminately on the wood. He described how this body of work, and his process, do in fact seem more free in comparison to previous works, which were often pictorial, narrative vessels driving forth stories of fallen away small towns, rural solitude, community, subculture, and resistance. His past sculptures seemed like holding places for the motifs and symbols of the everyday, such as local vegetation, a boot, a car, a cabin, tangled trees, a telephone pole, a radio tower, and so on. While this essence has not departed entirely (it can still be seen in the simple attunement of a cross on a wall or a chair on the ground), this body of work carries a kind of centeredness and essence that cannot be fully circumscribed. In Homeschool, there are few integrated ordinary objects of the material world, and rather the sculptural shapes at large, wholly their own entities, allow for the inhabitation of cosmic otherness. One can glimpse in their forms nature spirits and gods, divine or semi-divine, and beings of the landscape that are intertwined with the elemental. Usher, which resembles a mask held aloft by two sinewy tree-like legs, embodies a magicality of the folk and tribal -- its shape endows the wood with spirit, part tree and part human, bridging the self with the natural world that we are irreducibly a part of.
A remarkable piece in Spangler’s current oeuvre, Idol also occupies a mysterious space that seems as familiar as a wood burning stove and yet as distant as an ancient, therianthropic being. In fact, the overarching form of Idol, a bulbous four legged creature, recalls easily the Ritual Object (Boli), a Bamana sculpture from Mali held publicly by the Art Institute of Chicago, created in the mid-nineteenth or early twentieth century out of wood, cloth, mud and sacrificial materials.* Like Boli, Idol seems to stand amid and out of time, as a visceral enactment of the ancient and the here and now, formed with tactile materials born of the earth, and as a remnant or re-engagement with ritual that recalls the mythic or timeless. Spangler’s Idol engenders empathy with one’s surroundings, and casts a spell upon the viewer that can only lead to a conversation with the ineffable, remaining open beyond materiality or direct association. To quote Eliade again: “We are confronted by...the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world...The sacred can be manifested in stone or trees…what is involved is not a veneration of the stone in itself, a cult of the tree in itself.”*
While cosmic and sacred, many of the sculptures are still deeply personal, such as the show’s title piece Homeschool, which is a chair carved from a single basswood tree trunk. This piece was inspired by a Norwegian kubbestol, which Spangler’s great grandfather once made for his grandmother in Northern Minnesota. Within the woodcarving tradition, techniques are carried forward generationally. The act of making is recalled and brought forth, as it was in his ancestor’s workshop of the past. Within Homeschool, the instantiation of this family tradition recalls an ancient pedagogy of woodcarving that is not simply about craft, but is about the magic of an intergenerational conversation. This idea is endemic to woodcarving in its traditional forms. For example, a Maori master sculptor can be described as “a priest who instructs his pupils in both the technique of carving and the proper magic rituals that are necessary to execute a good work.”* Woodcarving traditionally has intensions that move far beyond the technical and Spangler’s work reverberates with this ancient potential.
Another sculpture, titled Water, presents a more intuitive aspect of Spangler’s art. Water was hewn from a single, damp basswood log that was left in the artist’s studio two winters ago. By not removing the bark, the wood inevitably succumbed to a slow advancing rot. Upon sculpting the piece, the rotted areas were sanded away, and the decaying conditions revealed vivid streaks and beautiful deep grain lines. This reincarnated basswood was washed anew with a translucent, light turquoise stain, becoming a bright altar, symbolic of fluidity, renewal and natural cycles. In a conversation, Spangler described to me how his previous practice was influenced by being absent from Northern Minnesota, when living in Brooklyn; now back in his home ground of Park Rapids, he is no longer bound by these absent narratives, he is immersed there. Spangler’s work in Homeschool is present and attentive to sociopolitical and cultural themes of place and time, but no longer bound by desire from a distance; he is at his source and center. – Kari Adelaide
Aaron Spangler (b. 1971, Minneapolis, MN) lives and works in Park Rapids, MN. He received a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minneapolis, MN. He is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the McKnight Foundation for Visual Artists, Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Jerome Foundation. He has been featured in recent exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Ackland Art Museum, Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Van Abbemuseum, Smart Museum of Art, and the Rubell Collection. His work has been reviewed in Time Out New York, Artforum, The New York Times, and Flash Art, among others.
Kari Adelaide lives and works in New York City. Her writing has appeared on The Huffington Post, the Walker Art Center Blog, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, and BOMBlog.
*Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane, The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, 1987), 38.
*See for example Sacred Wood, The Contemporary Lithuanian Woodcarving Revival, edited by Ruta Saliklis (Madison: Elvehjem Museum of Art, 1998).
*The Art Institute of Chicago, Collections, Ritual Object (Boli), Mid-19th/early 20th century. http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/154023.
*Eliade, The Sacred and The Profane, The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, 1987), 11-12.
*Kalyan Kr. Das Gupta, Wood Carvings of Eastern India (Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Limited, 1990), 1.