Innate Contours consists of twenty-seven drawings, created from 1976 to
1994, and one 800-pound sculpture, Man Doing War. The 14-foot oak
sculpture, finished in 1984, was included in the 1985 Biennial Exhibition at the
Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It was selected for this
exhibition to show the relationship between the artists drawings and his
three-dimensional work. A drawing also titled Man Doing War, dated January
1984, is part of the exhibition. The sculpture will be suspended from the dome
in the school, creating a dramatic focal point for the exhibition.
Without question, James Surls is one of Texass most acclaimed artists of the
late twentieth century, said Valerie Loupe Olsen, curator of the exhibition and
associate director of Glassell School of Art. This retrospective look at Surlss
drawings is certainly fitting as we approach the millennium and art historians,
museum curators, and critics re-examine American art and its impact over the
Surlss stream-of-consciousness drawings are done in graphite and,
occasionally, ink. At first glance, they appear simplistic, even childlike. But on
closer viewing, the complexities in the imagery are apparent. Surls is a master
of interweaving lines every so slightly, changing pressure on the pencil to
achieve tonal qualities ranging from pale gray to rich black. He creates with a
sure hand, allowing the lines to flow, rarely making corrections or erasures.
Im more in tune with my drawings than I am with my sculpture because
drawing is like a poem to me, Surls said in a 1985 interview. Its closest to
the bone, and as close as youre going to get to an idea.
Words scrawled on the drawings, sometimes in rhyme, serve as titles and
further enhance the storytelling element that is central to Surlss work. He
believes works of art should tell a story; the stories in his drawings spring
from his personal experiences. The drawings show family life, times of great
happiness, momentous events, emotional upset, anger, fear, love, and even hate.
Man Doing War also tells a story, one of stress and conflict. The form has a
butcher knife stuck through its head. The surface is knobby and rough. In a
1988 interview, Surls offered this description: Hes got one sick eye and one
thats clear; his feet are backwards; he reeks of self-inflicted pain. Hes the
patriarchal system at its worst.
The element of monumentality is important in Surlss work, especially in his
sculptures. While his drawings range from tiny to mural in size, the smallest of
these exhibit the qualities of the monumental. On Being Taken Back aCross
the Bridge (49 1/4 by 85 inches) is a significant piece, illustrating extreme
depth of space and imagery on a grand scale.
Included in the exhibition is one drawing from the MFAHs permanent
collection: At the Round Earths Imagind Corners. The triptych was created
by Surls and poet Cynthia MacDonald for One + One, a 1988 exhibition at
Glassell. The shows curator, Janet Landay, now at MFAH, asked artists and
writers to collaborate on pieces for the exhibition.
Five other works by Surls are in the MFAHs permanent collection. They
include a sculpture, I am Building with the Axe, the Knife, and the Needles
Eye; a drawing; a woodcut; and two linoleum cuts.
Other museums that own Surlss work are: the Museum of Modern Art, the
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American
Art in New York; National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles
County Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Stedelijk
Surls has been recognized throughout his career with significant awards. He
received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1979. The Art
League of Houston named him 1991 Texas Artist of the Year. In 1993, he
was the first recipient of the Living Legend Award, presented by the Dallas
Visual Arts Center.
The artist lived on a wooded acreage about 45 miles north of Houston until
1998 when he moved his family and his studio to Basalt, Colorado, a town near
Aspen. On his acreage, he used felled trees to create his large-scale sculptures.
In recent years, he has focused on metal sculptures.