I used to think, before Townley, that relief sculpture meant serene goddesses in rippling robes standing at attention on a marble façade—ancient creations, emanating from some primal genius, enigmatic, portentous, mythical.
Now, after Townley, walking through the front gallery at BigTown where Hugh Townley’s sculptures will be on view all summer, I know differently, know more, know better. A relief, I realize, can be made of wood with a bandsaw, can be nonsensical, funny, whimsical, poetic, can be a warm, rich brown, revealing the grain and cut in the wood, or can be painted in bright colors as with a kid’s box of crayons and remind you of a puzzle, the kind with large, chunky pieces that fit together with a satisfying clunk.
Townley, born in 1923 in Indiana and spending most of his career at Brown University, was four years younger than my mother. I know his era, his world—in and out of war, a world struggling to make sense of itself, to begin again, to promise, to blossom—the world of rock n’roll, National Parks, the Joy of Cooking, the Mustang, the Rockettes, and, yes, even the computer. A world of experimentation, invention, a world opening up.
Hugh Townley found the bandsaw and never looked back. The show at BigTown gives you a Townley sampler: shapes and forms—birds, people, leaves, stars, a moon?—at play either in large wall mounted reliefs or free-standing ladder/tree/house structures that invite an imaginative climb or hide-and-seek.
Fitting that Townley liked and found inspiration in poetry. His works are poems—mysterious, rhythmic, suggestive, and surrounded by a spacious quiet. Here is a poem Townley himself said was representative of his work, by Kalidasa Sakunta, and translated from Sanskrit by W. S. Merwin:
"Even the man who is happy
or a hair of sound touches him
and his heart overflows with a longing
he does not recognize
then it must be that he is remembering
in a place out of reach
shapes he has loved
in a life before this
the print of them still there in him waiting"
After Townley, after being in his presence in the summer show at BigTown, I see why this poem speaks to him. All those curving and twisting shapes, leaping and reaching and exploring, come from a place in our deepest being that we almost forgot about.
Be sure to stop in BTG Vergennes to enjoy two additional Townley works, “Townleysberrybush,” a very tall, fairy tale-like, well, berry bush, and a surprise, the only print on view at BTG, a study in black and orange of—what?—you decide.