James Surls: Force of Nature

Erika Larsen
by Julia Reed - June/July 2012

Texas sculptor James Surls has never fit into the art world’s conventions nor does he plan to anytime soon. But one thing that can’t be denied is his big-time talent

>Click here to see photos of James Surls's sculptures

On July 29 of last year, James Surls held the First Annual Studio Dinner at the compound in Carbondale, Colorado, just outside of Aspen, where he lives with the artist Charmaine Locke, his soul mate, wife, and muse of thirty-six years, as well as the mother of four of his seven daughters. The event was memorable for a number of reasons. First, of course, there was the postcard perfect setting: a 7,000-square-foot house and two massive studios set into the side of a mountain overlooking the Roaring Fork Valley, an open landscape where Surls’s expansive sculptures seem almost drawn against the sky. Then, there was the party itself, a lavish affair for two-hundred-plus folks who sipped cocktails and champagne on a terrace surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers in full bloom, and who dined—extremely well—in an exhibition space surrounded by the brawny yet oddly ethereal pieces from the artist’s Rough God series.

Far more important, though, was what the event signaled: a radical restructuring of the artist/patron model, the one followed by Surls (until shortly before that evening) and pretty much every other artist of his caliber on the planet. “Hold onto your bonnet” were the first words in the e-mail he sent me describing what he had in mind: “This is a step-out-and-pull-both-triggers event,” he wrote, to be accompanied by a “no shit, killer of a book that will set the mark for what will follow in the years to come.” He was, he said, done with “the sea of twits talking to other twits out in the art world.” He was going to find “a new way to do this.”

By “this,” Surls, whose persona can be as fierce and larger than life as his work, meant nothing less than the dynamic of how we look at art and who gets to decide (and comment on) what we look at, how we go about collecting it and from whom. In anticipation of the dinner, he’d fired all six of his dealers around the country. From that moment on, gallery shows would be replaced by a single studio event; each year, he would invite the market (collectors and would-be collectors, critics and writers, friends and fellow artists) to come to him instead.

The event, and the reasoning behind it, are examples of Surls’s fearless individuality and singular vision, but the evening itself was not all that different from what he and Locke have been doing for much of their lives: bringing people together in charmed settings. “He’s always been incredibly generous,” says the painter John Alexander, who is Surls’s close friend and a fellow Texan. “His thinking is that art is something that should be shared, that it is a vehicle for creating community.” Alexander, who first met his friend at Southern Methodist University, where he was a grad student and Surls was a teacher, says the “huge parties” started in Dallas and continued when both men landed teaching jobs at the University of Houston. There, in 1979, Surls founded the Lawndale Art Center in an abandoned 100,000-square-foot warehouse. The studio and exhibition space, which featured performances by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, and the Butthole Surfers, was a game-changing addition to a city whose museum walls were then dominated by “dead white guys” and helped launch Houston as a player in the national art scene.