Sometimes you are given a gift. Today, Anni asked me to mind the gallery in Rochester while Bud took time off to prepare for his wedding (congratulations, Bud and Andrea!). I hauled a heavy bag of stuff to the gallery—books, magazines, pads and pens, and knitting, envisioning spans of solitude in between gallery visitors. I’d read a novel, write a poem, and experiment with new cable stitches in a lovely purple yarn I’d been saving.
Well, Hugh Townley intervened, and Erik Baier intervened, much to my surprise and great pleasure. What a treat—to immerse myself in works of art by two wonderful artists and to receive a visit by Erik himself who stopped by to photograph his current show of stately photographs.
I suppose I visited in a way with Townley, too, who died in 2008, but whose spirit is so present in his work. Letting myself take the time to wander around the main gallery among Townley’s carvings, letting the sun slanting in through the gallery’s large windows warm me (today is one of those late August days in Vermont that can only be described as COLD), reading the catalog “Hugh Townley: The Wizard of Wood,” I got to know Townley in a way I hadn’t before, learned how he refused to be influenced by current trends in the art world or by media attention, but went his own way, teaching at Brown, periodically spending time in a place where he could focus and experiment, and always staying true to his own materials, methods, and vision, an authentic artist, I inferred, a genuine person.
The show in the gallery includes a little bit of everything Townley—his wooden sculptures, both large and small, his reliefs in wood, both natural and painted, and his lithographs, both bright (silver, goldenrod, pink, and orange) and muted (shades of white and a pale gray-green). What is constant are the shapes, some representational—leaves, trees, suns, human figures—some abstract—globular, angular, stocky—but always playful, substantial, curious, intricate, clear, wonderfully pleasing. You want to touch his wooden sculptures, play with them, test the nesting parts, swing the arms, pull the chain, move them in and out of light, even climb them. But, don’t worry, I didn’t touch or climb.
Townley’s pieces remind me of the circus or puppet shows. Because of the stage-like framing of the pieces? Maybe, but more because of the similarities in creative sensibility, I think. Puppets are made by hand and worked with the hands. Townley’s sculptures and reliefs are made in a similar way, I imagine, with great manual dexterity and attention to material. Puppets are invested with an uncanny spirit that is released through the puppeteer’s skill and dexterity. Townley’s works, too, seem to have a life of their own with their parts curving, angling, and nesting around and within one another. Look at “Birdsmith.” Its “wings” fit through its “body” and move like human arms and hands. Maybe the wings ARE human, are arms and hands; I don’t know, but I know the piece is alive somehow, is speaking to me about the mystery of being.
Like any hard-to-please artist, Erik thinks his show could be better, but I say, it’s perfect as it is—brightly lit both from natural light and spotlights, and framed in a small room with beige and white walls, floor, and ceiling. The effect is like being in a jewelry box or inside a Joseph Cornell box, a frame for the black and white images that absolutely shine on the walls. More than shine. There’s a monumentality to the pictures even when what they present—tumble down, makeshift, homemade structures—is often shabby and unbeautiful.
And when you look at the photographs for a while, moving slowly from one to the other, letting their straightforwardness seep into your consciousness, you notice the planes, shapes, and textures of the buildings and their surroundings—the woven sticks that make up one tiny house, the flaps of a tarp that flare like wings, the order of a cook’s shack, pots and pans hanging in jumbled but orderly rows. People made these dwellings, however meager they are; they represent intention, simplicity, a closeness to the earth.
As Erik and I talked, he said at one point in reference to meeting strangers, there’s sometimes a degree of “knowingness” between one person and another. I sensed that Erik brought knowingness to the subjects of these photographs, at least immense curiosity and generosity towards their makers.
That was the gift I was given today—a kind of knowingness between me and Hugh Townley and me and Erik Baier, between their work and my consciousness. I went home a deeper person after minding Anni’s gallery. That is what art can do for you.