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ITHACA, NY -- Ambitious sculpture, particularly of the freestanding variety, can be an afterthought in area art galleries. While purely decorative or functional three-dimensional work — and of course, novelty kitsch, entertaining or tedious — can be found in abundance, work that activates real space in ways that shake our perceptual and imaginative habits typically takes a backseat.

This fall, strong statements in sculpture appear unusually prevalent. Recently, over at SUNY Cortland’s Dowd Gallery, Cornell professor Jack Elliott’s “Laying in the Cut” explored found tree-forms and concise planar cuts in a dialog between nature and abstraction. “Romanoff Redux,” now just opened at the Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts, features one of Ithaca’s great culture hero(in)es. Victoria Romanoff, a 1964 Cornell MFA, architect, and pioneer of the local historical preservation movement, is a witty and expansive visual artist working on paper and in wood assemblage. I hope to write about her homegrown retrospective (which runs through Nov. 21) at full length soon.

Located in Milstein Hall, Cornell’s Bibliowicz Family Gallery currently features a modest cohort of handsome wood constructions by a long-time art department professor. “Roberto Bertoia: Reflections 2020” (through Oct. 31) incorporates a selection of small tabletop pieces and larger works: begun months or years earlier but completed during the depths of the pandemic last year. Like Romanoff, ingenious in his medium, he can be seen as a cooler, more elegant and fussy counterpoint to the older artist’s impish cacophony. Seeing the two shows with each other in mind is a joy.

Drawing from the Cubist and Constructivist roots of modernist sculpture, Bertoia assembles his “repurposed and/or salvaged” pieces of wood with a technical care that often recalls fine furniture and an improvisational energy that makes his pieces appear to jostle and shake. This tension — between precision and spontaneity — gives his work a rare complexity and expressive depth.

Bertoia’s rich, but subtle, organically toned finishes are offset in most of his larger sculptures here by small-scale color accents: little blocks or hollowed interiors painted in boldly hued red, blue, or black. Pieces of polished metal, mostly aluminum (but in one piece each: steel and bronze), also make appearances. His elusive and allusive use of strong color in fragments speaks to a longstanding chromophobia in modernist and abstract sculpture. Those of us steeped in traditions of modern art or design may feel the tension with some acuity.

Two human-height pieces, “Observer” and “Visitor,” consist of elevated masses resting from the gallery floor on table leg-like supports. (One misses the Rococo whimsy of Romanoff’s titles, which would be just as apt here.) The former, in a reddish finish, incorporates an upright, blocky form that has been broken up, Cubist-style, into twisting facets. Two small rectangular projections reveal, through their “windows,” hollow interiors painted respectively in bright red and blue. A small, shelf-like fringe of aluminum halos one side while a bent wood cylinder lies casually atop this playful but stately assembly.

The latter effort is presented in pale, unfinished wood with no metal or colored accents. Skinnier, more dispersed, it recalls the modular apartment architecture of Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67: an appropriate allusion given the gallery’s setting amidst Cornell’s architecture department.

Exhibitions in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning’s several galleries are not typically promoted to the broader public. Often these many and myriad shows of student, faculty, and visitor work embrace what may seem to outsiders esoteric means and ends. Gallery-goers familiar with “townie” art venues may be baffled or bored — not necessarily without good reason.

Although far from a populist or lowbrow show, “Reflections” has a playfulness and immediate energy that belies Bertoia’s deep sophistication. Indeed, his work shares this in common with that of fellow Cornell-affiliated wood sculptors Elliott and Romanoff. Comparing the latter two, at least, is recommended and doable.

Bertoia’s is a metaphorically, as well as formally, ambitious art. In an accompanying statement, he writes that “enclosure, isolation, separation, [and] privacy are among the ideas involved in the work.” This is more than some COVID-era grasping for relevance — rather, the constructions here take the artist’s signature approach and give it richly evocative variation. With their building-like structures and often anthropomorphic presence, they offer much to experience and think through.

Occupying an underground corner of Cornell’s Rem Koolhaas-designed Milstein Hall — look for the notorious cantilever over University Avenue, across from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art — the Bibliowicz Family Gallery is open to the general public from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. AAP runs a busy calendar of shows and other events free and open to the general public. More information can be found at aap.cornell.edu.

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