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

The social and artistic energy that marked Lawndale reached its apotheosis when Surls and Locke moved to Splendora, a compound that they built in an area in the East Texas woods near Houston known as the Big Thicket. The couple had met in 1974 at SMU when Locke, a psychology major, had impressed Surls with her papers; when they finally came face to face in an elevator, Surls tells me he saw his life pass before him “in a moment of silence” as they rode two floors: “visions of chickens, dogs and babies, museums, galas and fancy balls, pickup trucks and Eldorado Broughams.” Though it was “not the right time in either one of our lives” (they were both married to other people), he knew it was meant to be. “Here I was, the leading man in all the country songs about the paradox of existence, and I get run over by a freight train hauling my future,” he says. “My life has always been layered in paradox. I just accept it and feel like Southern fiction is a true story.”

In Splendora, Locke and Surls built a house, a 10,000-square-foot studio, and several outbuildings that housed fellow artists and, for a time, Surls’s mother, Martha Lucille. His upbringing as a carpenter’s son on a farm in rural Malakoff came in considerably handy. “It looked like paradise, but in the early years, they were like a pioneer couple,” says Alexander. “They didn’t have a washing machine or a TV, an air conditioner or heat other than a woodstove. To have hacked out an existence in that environment was a Herculean project. Every board, every nail that went into that place was done by Charmaine and James. Every snake he killed, she killed one too, and every nail he hammered, she did the same.”

The sculptor Joseph Havel, director of the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and a frequent Splendora visitor, says that the years there were marked by “magical, almost operatic” gatherings orchestrated by Surls, whom he dubs the Great Convener. Havel recalls one evening in particular when the studio was decorated with enormous dogwood branches that hung from the ceiling between the sculptures, while two members of the New York City Ballet danced to Stravinsky and dogs could be heard barking in the distance as soon as the music broke. “All the activities out there had that duality of sophistication and local flavor,” Havel says. “I didn’t grow up in Texas, but it seemed perfectly Texas in the best way, to conceive of something that would be magnificent to do, and then to do it so grandly.”

In Splendora, Surls had ample access to the pine and oak and sweet gum that became the essential materials of a lot of his work. Robert Hughes once wrote in Time magazine that “Surls’s sculpture is infused, at the start, with a real sense of fright: the noonday demon lurking in the woodpile”—and in his case, the woodpile is literal. “I make my art from conjuring from the sublime, from green grass, trees, sticks, rivers, and rocks,” Surls tells me. With the exception of Locke, he cites the artist Joseph Cornell, a different kind of conjurer, as his greatest influence. Taken at face value, Cornell’s small glass-fronted boxes, filled with odd bits of ephemera and found objects, could not be more different from Surls’s wildly muscular and far more massive work. But like that of his hero’s, Surls’s work is full of “stuff”: mementos and totems and whatever else turns up during the excavation of his memory and his imagination and certainly his environment.

The environment in Splendora was “very Deep South,” Surls says. “The land is sugar sand and dark loam, cut into pieces by rivers, creeks, and bayous.” His work seemed as though it grew straight from it, and Surls himself has said he felt “screwed right into the ground” there. But in 1997, after twenty years, Surls and Locke traded “the Home Place” for Colorado, a dramatically different landscape where Surls’s sculpture has become more expansive, as well as what he describes as “rougher and rawer.” His longtime friend and collector Marilyn Oshman agrees, and says she also finds it far more “personally revealing.”

It is fitting, then, that Surls has now chosen to reveal himself without the buffer of dealer or gallery, to open up his most personal environment to collectors and critics alike. “I don’t even know that there’s a word that would do justice to what he’s doing,” says Alexander, who attended last year’s dinner. “Plenty of artists don’t have dealers, but to have achieved a network of them and then to get rid of them all is certainly unprecedented.”

So far the new path, barely a year old, has been a success. It also makes a world of sense. Of all the mediums, sculpture is the most expensive to make, crate, ship, and install. It is also, Surls says, “the hardest for collectors to deal with.” It’s a lot easier to find a spot on a wall for a medium-size oil painting, say, than it is to find a spot for Knowing What the Stone Knows, a 102-by-102-by-64-inch hanging piece of river stone, pine, cedar, and steel featured at the inaugural studio exhibition. “I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trucking sculpture from New York to California, from Chicago to New Orleans—pieces that did not happen to match the couch or fit in with the drapes,” he says. “I live in one of the most beautiful places on the North American continent, I have one of the best studios in the world, and this is where the sculpture is…I just made the decision that I am not a gallery kind of artist.”

He is, however, an artist who, at sixty-nine, is at the top of his game. In addition to having work in the permanent collections of institutions including the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Smithsonian, three years ago he became one of a handful of artists whose work was installed on the islands in the middle of Manhattan’s Park Avenue, as part of the New York City Parks Public Art Program. At the same time, Abilene’s Grace Museum featured a show of recent sculpture and drawings, and in 2010, the seven Park Avenue works had an encore presentation at Houston’s Rice University. Last fall, major gifts of Surls sculptures were unveiled in cities as varied as Rockport, Texas; Greensboro, North Carolina; and New Orleans, and in November he and John Alexander were honored at the thirty-year anniversary gala of Houston’s Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.

Since then, Surls has been working on pieces to be included in the Second Annual Studio Exhibition, which will be held on July 28. The guest list has already grown by an additional hundred guests, and a new catalog will feature a monograph by noted art critic, scholar, and poet Thomas McEvilley. Saxophonist and artist Dickie Landry will kick off the proceedings with a solo concert. The Art Guys, performance artists who got their start at the Lawndale, will make an appearance, and after supper, the Flatlanders, starring such legends as Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, will, says Surls, “play till the rooster crows.”

“This ain’t no chicken shit exhibition, this is the Second Annual and will be as big a deal as I can make it,” Surls wrote me in an e-mail. When I read it, I was reminded that he was once described by a critic as having a speaking manner that was a cross between Joseph Campbell and Johnny Cash. But in the end, he is pure Surls: “Life is too short to f**k around. So I breathe deep the winds of chance.”