Times Art Critic

The meandering, anarchic climate of the art world in recent years has at least the virtue of drawing serious attention to art once dismissed as provincial. On top of this, the triumph of Neo-Expressionism has revived interest in art's human content.

As a result, such bastions of bracing abrasiveness as California's Bay Area, Chicago and parts of Texas have been grudgingly recognized as harboring some pretty interesting artists. One of the most compelling is James Surls from down Houston way. His art is not without problems, but its upfalls are admirable and its downers open to argument. It is all under serious review until June 16 at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in a traveling retrospective of more than 60 big wood sculptures plus a gaggle of drawings, all organized by Dallas Museum of Art curator Sue Graze.

Surls, 42, makes no secret of the literal country & Western roots of his art. He sculpts rough-hewn in wood that frankly admits it used to be a tree and still mostly is. One of the most impressive pieces consists of a magisterial stump, clinging to its roots and topped by a swirling, dervish-like form covered with eyes and bristling with axes.

The work, like much art from the hinterlands, is idiosyncratic to the point of eccentricity, but also as classic as those sorrowful songs about boozy, unfaithful slobs and delicate, loyal women that pervade Texas radio stations like the heat of summer.

Those songs tend to put autobiographical experience in terms of universal myth, as do Surls' sculptures. "Tornado" of 1977 depicts a little model church being zapped by a wooden twister. It might well represent a personal memory of the artist, but it is stated in the universal accents of "When God gets mad, he knocks down churches along with everything else."

Ditto for "In Between." It sets two personages on a bench; one of his dervishes--clearly phallic-masculine--confronts a more placid feminine archetype offering a diamond shape.

Surls has been married three times and has five daughters, so the work might well be autobiographically inspired, but it is put in terms of the eternal yin-yang dichotomy. This joining of, if you like, the Freudian and the Jungian creates an odd disjunction in the art. When, for example, one encounters the impressive root piece, it has the authority of a primal phenomenon. When you notice that the title is "Working in the Garden," it's irritatingly disappointing, like a really bad shaggy-dog story. Surls is like a potent shaman, who calls up an awesome demon and transforms it into a teddy bear.

Surls' work has a ferocious energy that recalls Picasso, but he really belongs in the American tradition of wacko craftsmen, whose leading practitioner was H. C. Westermann. Such artists live on the borders of folk and primitive styles, and Surls is no exception. Work echoes the death-cart carvings of New Mexico's Penitente brotherhood and forms spiritual links to primitive art, from Zuni war god carvings to the Asmat bis poles of New Guinea.

There are marked similarities between Surls' art and great primitive work. He retains its respect for materials, so that objects look like one of those magical accidents that are so expressively compelling.

In "Elephant Man," for example, he uses branch divisions for legs that seem to be dancing, an enormous hand that comes straight from the waist and a tiny head that meanders off from a twig that just happened to be there. The result has a weirdness and inevitability recalling descriptions of peyote hallucinations.

On the other hand, primitive art exercises a hypnotic rightness that Surls' work rarely attains. Left alone with a great tribal object, one often has the uneasy feeling that maybe he ought to get the hell out of here before something weird happens. Surls only manages this kind of virtually supernatural power occasionally, such as in "Greedman."

It may be too much to ask that art from this culture express the unflinching belief and power of tribal art. We are taught from childhood to suppress our wilder impulses and to prod all deep conviction with the dull instrument of doubt. Most people in this culture cannot even approach Surls' level of fantasy and spontaneity, but the funny thing about his work is that it seems to go out of its way to minimize its own clout. It grasps a kind of awesome aesthetic wavelength and then backs off, either through jokey, self-effacing titles or a kind of cutesy-grotesque that has its main parallel in the scary scenes of classic Disney movies: You know, Snow White running from the wicked huntsman through stormy woods while gnarled trees with eyes tear at her dress and every expressive device whispers, "It's just a story, folks, don't get scared, just kidding. . . . "

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