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Installation view, Sculpture by Peter Strasser at the Garner Arts Center Gallery. Photo by Sal Cordaro.

Sculpture by Peter Strasser

Garner Art Center Gallery

Until June 25

By BOB CLYATT, June 2022

For New Yorkers lucky enough to make it to the Hudson River Valley this summer, a visit to the Garner Arts Center on 19e century brick industrial complex converted into studios and exhibition spaces, will be doubly rewarded with this installation of sculptures by Peter Strasser.

Strasser brings decades of experience with wood to these remarkable great works. With a sculpting degree from Pratt and then long stints restoring everything from historic pieces and furniture at the Met to high-end antebellum apartments in Dakota, Strasser knows his wood. A recent visit with the sculptor to his hand-hewn and restored 1840s timber-framed studio gave an idea of ​​just how much is required of a sculptor working in this medium. A large gantry crane and a sawmill on train tracks allow Strasser to remove fallen trees from his property and cut them lengthwise to produce flat planks. Spacers are placed between the boards and then the whole thing is tied to dry for several years until the wood can be used in a finished job without warping. Old wooden pulleys for hoists and pulleys, ladders made of branches and 19e the hand tools of the century sit alongside tractors, forklifts and precision machinery. The process of transforming trees into sculptures is much more than a technique for Strasser – it is more like a way of being, a way of living. Tools and methods support creative choices that appear as defining characteristics in finished works. Asked about the repetition of irregular linear streaks on several finished works, Strasser showed me an antiquated 5-foot-long chainsaw that he says is still the best way to cut the perfect slab from one of his tall trunks or blocks.

Ship Series: Out of Place, Ship Series: Wood, Steel, and Metal, Wash Tub Artifact, 6 x 3 x 2 in. Photo by Sal Cordaro.

The works in the exhibition span a decade of production and incorporate various elements beyond wood. Strasser has an unerring sense of composition and materials, contextualizing carved stones, historic artifacts and more with wood. “I’m interested in history, revealing the history of things, deciding almost like an archaeologist or a paleontologist,” Strasser told me. He knows something of what he is talking about, as these are actually the professions of his brother and sister, while his academic philosopher father and academic research librarian mother led a life of exploring ideas and culture. . Over the years Strasser had formative relationships that led to his working methods, for example his visits with Henry Moore to his studio and to his home in Yorkshire when Strasser was a visiting sculpture student at the University of Sheffield in the 1970s. Other significant influences on his work include David Nash, Alicja Kwade, Brancusi, Noguchi and Martin Puryear.

Strasser’s process is almost like a collage. Hundreds, if not thousands of items sit in its various workshops, studios and grounds awaiting their moment. When creating works like those of Ship Series it’s the easiest to see. The perfect remaining wedge of white oak waited until it could be mated to an old galvanized wash tub, for example, in Ship Series: Wash Tub. This process achieves remarkable power in broken chainwhere a large boomerang or elbow-shaped cutout from another project finally joined together with a sliced ​​tree trunk stripped of its bark to stand confidently using well-designed mortised joints. But when one day a few links of a great rusty chain were slung from the extending limb, the piece locked into its mighty finished state. Strasser doesn’t start with a vision for a room he sets out to build. Rather, these pieces emerge through long, thoughtful tinkering, placing things next to each other and seeing when sparks strike.

Installation view, Sculpture by Peter Strasser at the Garner Arts Center Gallery. Photo by Sal Cordaro.

But what do they mean, I hear myself asking? The artist nods wisely and offers me no quarter. His close study of Moore perhaps gives him the confidence to resist the contemporary appeal of narrative, social justice, or conceptual work. Indeed, it embraces many modernist values, the emphasis on material, on form, a kind of Juddian sculptural presence “thing in itself”. Yet the works keep drifting away from my ranking jabs: “returning modernist”, “outsider-art”, “design”.

Instead, I keep going back to favorites again and again: The stems of gum-like translucent day-glo resin placed between slices of a reassembled walnut trunk, laid on their side and tied together. (Ode to fellow sawyers.) Afternoon sunlight at the Garner Arts Center Gallery illuminates the resin from behind, animating the piece in a living contemporary layered structure, nature literally intertwined with the man-made, the artificial.

A few years ago, a big cherry fell on Strasser’s neighbor’s lot near his studio in Airmont, NY. It was a gnarled old man, maybe 200 years old, with a rich burl and many limbs sticking out of its hollow trunk. It was cut into three sections and using lifts, tractors and chains laid out to dry in the studio yard. Vines have grown around a section that has finally been stripped of its bark and a curvy black line of lacing now encircles the vertical piece (Y member with shadows). big red however, (and its similar sister piece) has been transformed into the kind of sculptural work that lodges in his heart and continues to intrude on his thoughts. The group of ancient limbs have been cut, chiseled and rounded by the sculptor, festooning the lower half of the work with urgent, bulbous flares. The middle of the work has been carefully opened up, revealing through deft artifice a piece of finished wood machined into the heart of the old tree, with cracks and unruly checks where imperfections of aged cherry meet milled production. Painted a perfect red, the wood and the tree trunk live together in an embrace, incomparably different but literally one piece. In front of this monumental piece, we feel its presence, we move around it. The eye and the mind dance, turn, go back and dance again. WM

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