John Grade creates sculptures whose life continues well beyond the gallery. His colossal ceramic installation, "Circuit," now on view in Pioneer Square, will be dissembled and hauled up to a Cascade mountaintop by a team of 150 volunteers. The various elements of the piece will then be allowed to weather and perhaps deteriorate in the environment; after a year they will be retrieved and exhibited again.
The best moment in John Grade’s good, but not great, show at Davidson Galleries occurs in the print room, just beyond the main exhibition space where the rest of his sculptures are installed. A dark, 9-foot ceramic pod lies uneasily on the floor, its grey lumpy surface and claw-like front end looking like the severed foot of some prehistoric beast, coexisting awkwardly with discreetly framed art and subdued track lighting of the surrounding space. I loved the incongruity and intrusiveness of this blunt, spiny-skinned invader in such polite surroundings, a hint of a realm where howling creatures lumber and thrash through grim terrains of mud and storm.
The same pod shape takes on an entirely different identity in the centerpiece installation in the show, where 15 similar 9-foot constructions have been set upright and hinged together in a roughly circular grouping entitled Circuit. Circuit, like much of Grade’s recent work, is meant to be suggestive rather than specific, and it brings to mind, among other things a tight cluster of hooded, monk-like figures, or the totemic rock monoliths of a latter-day Stonehenge. Each individual element is composed of a boat-shaped wooden framework, to which several dozen ceramic panels have been affixed, with a drab nubby skin of endless rows of tiny molded ceramic knobs. The outside of each panel is gently curved like a shield, and the crackly black and white glaze gives the surface the mottled look of Rhinoceros skin, or a barnacle-encrusted piling.
My issue with "Circuit" is that it is not particularly interesting as sculptural form – not in the individual elements, not as a group. The dullness of the overall color, the rather banal shapes, the lack of surprise or variety, adds up to a less than compelling visual statement. It doesn’t help that the artist has added an extra element of a completely different scale and substance – strands of looping cotton string so slight they don’t show up in most photographs – which are stand-ins, I’m told, for guy wires that will hold the sculptures in place when they are moved to their next location, but are notable only when they fall in a heap in the very center of the group. The string here seems gratuitous, disconnected, and entirely over-weighted by the ceramic towers they connect; we would not miss them if they were gone.
As a large installation, "Circuit" does offer the viewers several sorts of experience, both the peculiar dark clump they present upon entering the gallery, and the very different sensation one achieves when entering the pod circle at the back end, where a break has been provided. From the inside, we are surrounded by the wooden framework that supports the hundreds of ceramic panels, and here there is a sense of being protected and enclosed, as in a chapel or a stockade. A suitable place, I imagine, for enacting a marriage ceremony, or an animal sacrifice.
Like many of his recent pieces, Grade’s "Circuit" is meant not as a final artistic statement, but as an intermediate stage of a work in progress. Already the product of a large-scale team effort during its manufacture at Pottery Northwest, the next stage of the work’s existence involves even more logistical challenges. At show’s end Grade plans to disassemble the piece and pack it up to a Cascade mountaintop using 150 volunteers, each carrying 50-75 pounds worth of sculpture.
Once arrived in the wilderness, "Circuit" will be placed so as to gracefully degrade in place, the weather acting upon adhesives designed to be impermanent. Grade will document the process of change and then install the unpredictably corroded final result in a more accessible location a year or more hence.
I’m reminded of Christo’s Gates in Central Park, an installation I similarly found less than compelling in person, but one with a fascinating back story of technical challenges and volunteer participation, and a particularly glamorous afterlife in photographs, one I suspect Circuit will enjoy as well, in the next chapter of its history. The problem is assessing the current work based on what might happen to it in the future.
We don’t need to use our imagination to appreciate the other Grade sculptures in the exhibition, brilliantly crafted abstractions inspired by natural forms or indigenous art. "Winter Breaks" could be a strip of seaweed or a dyed fabric, rippling in the wind, but the ripples and waves are the enacted in the unlikely medium of rather stout wood, sensuously shaped and glued with handsome resin stripes. "Jetty" is a pair of honeycomb sections, also made of twisting wood and floating just off the wall; one has the sense of a flat, carpentered panel caught and distorted by cataclysmic forces; Bream is a set of dark tapering tubes, like the lair of intertidal creatures swept ashore and dried out of life, and ready for a new colony.
Although not his strongest show, it’s important to look at the remarkable series of ambitious sculptures, installations, and events Grade has accomplished in the past decade. The recent procession of giant, trumpet-shaped paper towers from English church installation to the nearby sea documented on Grade’s website is particularly impressive, as are photographs of the various remote locations into which previous sculptures have been installed. Grade has also been featured in several museum shows, and a host of published reviews. Missing from many of the reviews is the fact that Grade shares in his preoccupations with several equally-accomplished local artists, artists like him who reference input gleaned from world travels, world cultures, and natural forms in abstract or semi-abstract interpretations. Mark Calderon’s recent monumental sculpture "Globo" shares with "Circuit" a search for elemental, evocative form, a huge scale, and an obsessively-textured skin; Chris Bruch’s huge paper horns are reminiscent of Grade’s much more ephemeral towers; and Ann Morris’s bronze assemblages of various natural forms, while more literal than Grade, share a similar sense of having been plucked directly from the natural world and given an artistic spin.
Like Grade, these other artists share a desire to extract from the specifics of a particular subject universal statements about growth, change, and mortality. Like Grade, their work is the most successful when the forms themselves are as evocative as the ideas and observations behind them. And like Grade, they take on the challenge of being compared with Mother Nature, the endlessly abundant ultimate source of all of our artistic materials.