Texas artist Danville Chadbourne’s latest retrospective — number four and counting — plants a forest of sorts in Baylor University’s Martin Museum of Art.
The museum’s two galleries sprout with more than 70 small wooden sculptures, many resembling forked and twisted branches growing from geometric wood and ceramic bases.
They’re the result of the prolific San Antonio artist’s fertile imagination and his belief that art and interpretation should involve a little mental wrestling from observers.
“Sometimes I don’t know exactly what’s going on in the work,” admitted the short, stocky artist during a recent visit to the museum show, his gray hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. “This is such a complicated tangle of work that I didn’t attempt any chronology (in the exhibit’s organization).”
It’s his fourth retrospective show and looks at wooden sculpture that he began in 1980 and which now represents a major part of his craft. Previous retrospectives focused on the prolific artist’s ceramics works or themes, many developed after the native Texan left collegiate teaching in 1989 to pursue art full-time.
While he could control the shape of his work in clay, working in wood provided a certain starting place with the form that nature created — a bend in a branch, an unexpected change in direction, a rough nodule interrupting a smooth trunk or stem.
“There’s a certain gesture in the wood . . . Each tree, each plant has its own characteristics,” he explained. Some of those characteristics, such as tensile strength, allowed the 68-year-old artist to craft pieces that seem fragile, with odd angles of branches standing unsupported.
Some sculptures’ smooth finish almost whisper to be touched or handled — don’t — but that’s the result of the artist’s intent to create something that suggests an object smoothed by constant use, such as a tool, or play, such as a toy.
Others work by contrast. A sinuous branch ending unexpectedly in a sharp horn or spike. An arrangement of objects on a single base. Handcrafted chains and beadwork integrated into wood. A twisting natural form snaking above a block shaped and painted by human hand.
“The world is not just this rational thing,” Chadbourne explained.
And, if his physical forms were not enough mental challenge, there are the titles he gives his pieces. “Fragile Monument To The Dissolution Of Night Memories.” “The Confused Discovery Of Dark Humor.” “In The Midst Of Improbable Truth.” “The Uncontrolled Presence Of Night Memories.”
They’re deliberately poetic and cryptic, a remnant from his earlier days as a writer before he found “making objects is where my strength lies.” He once wrote poems to accompany his artwork, but now works that poetic sense into their titles — a sense that also helps him close the door on a piece of mutable interpretation.
“It’s my point of completion with the work,” he explained. “My final act is to give it its name.”
For the viewer, however, that final act — and the shape of the object at hand — may be just the starting point.