I’ve been puzzled by Jim Osman’s sculptures ever since I first saw them a few years ago in an exhibit that was too crowded for me to really see what they were doing. I knew there was something special about them without knowing exactly what.
Sculptures need space regardless of their size, and this is especially true of Osman’s works, which invite examination even though their intricate structures encourage viewers to look at them from all sides, as some possess nooks and crannies that are not the main focus of the works. At the same time – and this really struck me – Osman seems, for the most part, uninterested in exploring any of the central tropes of sculpture: the column, the stack, or the stack. There are parts that he stacks up, but that’s not the focus of the parts either.
Another thing that caught my attention is their scale. We think of sculpture in human terms, from the diminutive to the monumental, from Joseph Cornell and Charles Simonds to Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero. Osman’s works don’t quite fit into this spectrum. In fact, they seem at odds with their size, which I think is another reason why they aren’t better known. We can’t quite reconcile our physical relationship with them partly because they seem to blur the line between functional object and aesthetic object.
The quality of not really knowing how to situate Osman’s work in the history of sculpture should be a starting point. This feeling only grew stronger after seeing the exhibition Jim Osman: Walnut: Second Series at McKenzie Fine Art (March 2-April 3, 2022). Osman unravels the relationship between the surface and the thing, between the grain of the wood (or knot) and the shape of the frame, or establishes a tonal relationship between the color of the paint and that of the wood. The only other sculptor I can think of who has explored the relationship between a thing’s patterned surface and its form is Minoru Niizuma, whose work is included in a recent exhibition I curated, The invisible teachers at the Tina Kim gallery.
By bringing together aspects of playground architecture, multi-level stage sets, movable screens, fences, furniture and paint, and infusing his constructions with whimsy, wonder and careful attention to surfaces and materiality, Osman achieves something distinct. His sculptures sit somewhere between open enclosures and platforms where support and object are equally important, as well as all surfaces, including edges. His work is certainly unlike any other celebrated sculpture in museums or on the market – rather than manipulating materials and emphasizing his dominance over them, Osman seems to let his materials dictate his responses.
For part of “Charme” (2020, wood, plaster and paint, 19 1/2 by 9 by 12 1/2 inches), Osman lines up five strips of wood according to their circular rings, placing them at different heights. This causes certain lines to unfold across all strips, each of which has been colored a slightly different color, ranging from mustard yellow to brown. How to characterize this aspect of “Charm”? Is it a drawing or an example of nature drawing?
Once you notice these rhymes and visual echoes, others become apparent, like the loose alignment of knotholes on larger planks of wood. When I thought about how the room would look enlarged, I recognized that the size of the nodes was a determining factor in the scale. Osman appeared to cut a few pieces in order to center or frame the knot.
Different types of relationships are established in Osman’s works, in the grain and color of the wood. Many of the pieces are on shelves protruding from the wall, with enough space between them for viewers to walk around and examine them closely. He shares with Donald Judd and Robert Ryman, for example, an attention to the way things are linked together; the hardware is visible and is an integral part of the work.
In “Pink Fade” (2021, wood and paint, 11 1/2 by 13 1/2 by 14 inches), Osman joins three flat structures at right angles, edge to edge, allowing the sculpture to stand upright while moving across space. By painting one side of two of the flat structures, he sets up a dynamic between smooth, painted surface and aligned wood grain and unpainted surface (between line and color). There is no didactic intention behind his decision to paint one side and not the other.
Osman’s interest in both sides of an airplane shares something with the work of Anthony Caro, the British sculptor who was once considered to have replaced David Smith but is no longer in favour. Whether it was inspired by Caro or not makes no difference to me, as the unlikely association is a reminder of how quickly and easily people conform to mainstream taste.
Osman, to his credit, seems to have dismissed the need to work big. That’s not to say he’s a miniaturist, as “Lectern” (2021) is 55 inches tall. It is sensitive to wood grain pattern, color and surface. It uses OSB, a kind of particle board, as well as other thinner types of natural wood. It tends to cut wood only into flat shapes. In addition to paint and hardware, he uses plaster and colored paper. As the title of the exhibition suggests, Osman’s interest in wood is also motivated by its varieties; Walnut is an American hardwood with unique patterns and easy to shape.
Are Osman’s sculptures visions of cities, theater sets or designs for a playground? Do you have to know how to name them to appreciate them? There’s a lot to unpack in the pieces and the way he works with paint and wood grain, applied and natural color, and how he questions the boundaries between painting and sculpture. Couldn’t we see the framed orange, yellow, and blue rectangle in “Marquee” (2021, wood, paint, and paper, 62 by 16 1/2 by 17 inches) as an affectionate nod to minimalist geometric painting? Do you see it as having a front and a back, like a highway billboard? What does that tell you? Osman’s care and attention to his modest materials, the particularities of their identity, are rare in a society where excess is celebrated daily.
Jim Osman: Walnut: Second Series continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 3. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.