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Deep In The Woods: Sculpture by Peter Strasser at Garner Arts Center Gallery

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

Sculpture by Peter Strasser

Garner Arts Center Gallery

Through June 25

By BOB CLYATT, June 2022 

For New Yorkers lucky enough to get up into the Hudson River Valley this summer, a visit to Garner Arts Center, the 19th century brick industrial complex now repurposed as studios and exhibition spaces, will be doubly rewarded by this installation of Peter Strasser’s sculptures.

Strasser brings several decades of experience with wood to these remarkable, large works.  With a sculpture degree from Pratt, then long stints restoring everything from historic rooms and furnishings at the Met to high-end prewar apartments at The Dakota, Strasser knows his wood.  A recent visit with the sculptor in his hand-hewn and restored 1840s timber frame studio gave a flavor of just how much is asked of a sculptor working in this medium.  A large gantry crane and saw mill on rail-like tracks allow Strasser to take fallen trees from his property and cut them lengthways to produce flat boards.  Spacers are placed between the planks and then it’s all strapped back together to dry for several years until the wood can be used in a finished work without warping.  Old wooden block and tackle pulleys, ladders made from branches and 19th century hand tools live alongside tractors, forklifts and precision machinery.  The process of turning trees into sculptures is far more than technique for Strasser- it feels more like a way of being, a way of living.  The tools and methods support creative choices that show up as defining features in finished works.  Asked about repeating jagged linear striations on several finished works Strasser showed me an antiquated 5-foot long slack chainsaw he says is still the best way to slice off the perfect slab from one of his large trunks or blocks. 

Vessel Series: Out of Place, Vessel Series: wood, steel, and metal, wash bin artifact, 6 x 3 x 2 in. Photo by Sal Cordaro.

Works in the show span a decade of output and incorporate diverse elements beyond wood.  Strasser has an unerring sense of composition and material, bringing sliced stones, historic manufactured objects and more into context with wood.  “I’m interested in history, revealing the history of things, slicing away almost like an archaeologist or paleontologist” Strasser tells me.  He knows something of what he speaks, as those are actually the professions of his brother and sister, while father an academic philosopher and mother a university research librarian supported a life of exploring ideas and culture.  Over the years Strasser has enjoyed formative relationships that have led him to his ways of working, for instance his visits with Henry Moore at his studio and home in Yorkshire when Strasser was a visiting sculpture student at Sheffield University in the 1970s.  Other significant influences on his work include David Nash, Alicja Kwade, Brancusi, Noguchi and Martin Puryear.

Strasser’s process is almost collage-like.  Hundreds if not thousands of elements sit about his various workshops, studio and grounds waiting for their moment.  When creating works such as those in Vessel Series this is easiest to see.  The perfect leftover wedge of white oak waited until it could be mated with an old galvanized wash tub, for instance, in Vessel Series: Wash Bin.  This process achieves remarkable power in Broken Chain, where a large boomerang or elbow-shaped cutout from another project eventually paired with a sliced tree trunk stripped of its bark to stand up confidently with the help of well-crafted mortised joints.   But when one day a few links of large rusted chain were hung off the extending limb, the piece locked into its powerful finished state.  Strasser doesn’t start with a vision for a piece that he sets out to build.  Rather these pieces emerge through long, thoughtful tinkering, placing things alongside of each other and seeing when sparks happen.

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

But what do they mean, I hear myself asking?  The artist nods sagely and offers me no quarter.  His close study of Moore gives him the confidence, perhaps, to resist contemporary pull to narrative, social-justice or concept-based work.  Indeed he embraces many modernist values, an emphasis on material, on form, a sort of Juddian ‘thing in itself’ sculptural presence.  Yet the works keep slipping away from my jabs at pigeon-holing: “throwback modernist”, “outsider-art”, “design”. 

Instead I return to favorites again and again:  The gummy-like translucent day-glo resin rods placed between slices of a re-assembled walnut trunk, laid on its side and strapped back together. (Ode to Fellow Sawyers.)  The afternoon sunlight at Garner Arts Center Gallery illuminates the resin from behind, animating the piece into a living contemporary layered structure, nature literally interleaved with the manufactory, the artificial.

Some years ago a large cherry fell on Strasser’s neighbor’s land near his studio in Airmont, NY.  It was a gnarled old one, perhaps 200 years, with rich burl and numerous limbs extending out of its hollowing trunk.  It was chopped into three sections and with the help of lifts and tractors and chains brought to dry in the studio yard.  Vines grew around one section which eventually was stripped of its bark and a sinuous lacing black line now encircles the upright piece (Y Limb with Shadows). Big Red though, (and its similar sister piece) was transformed into the kind of sculptural work that lodges in one’s heart and keeps intruding into one’s thoughts.  The cluster of old limbs were carved off, chiseled and rounded by the sculptor, festooning the lower half of the work with urgent, bulbous eruptions.  The middle of the work has been carefully peeled open, revealing through skilled artifice a machined piece of finished lumber at the core of the old tree, complete with unruly cracks and checks as the aged cherry’s imperfections encounter the milled production.  Painted with a perfect red, the lumber and the tree trunk live together in embrace, incomparably different yet quite literally of a piece.  Standing in front of this monumental piece we sense its presence, we move around it.  The eye and the mind dance, turn, switch back, and dance again. WM

Bob Clyatt

Bob Clyatt is a sculptor and writer living on Hen Island, New York.

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