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Barbara Sorensen: Sculpture as Environment

The influence of the monumentality and drama of the Colorado mountains can unquestionably be seen in the work of Barbara Sorensen, a Floridian who spends half the year in Snowmass Village, Colorado. In the wide-open spaces of the West, where the vistas go on for miles, one is as aware of the space between the mountains as of their bulk. Yet in close examination of the mountains, one sees the individuality of each, defined by color, shape, and patterning. “Looking carefully at the mountains,” Sorensen says, “the strata stand out as individual patterns, blueprints that tell the history of the earth.” It is this duality of experience, both microcosmic and macrocosmic, that Sorensen seeks to convey in her work.

This exhibition, Barbara Sorensen: Sculpture as Environment, created over a period of three years, marks a departure for the artist.  Although certainly connected to her earlier work which was defined both by its vessel references and by its relationship to nature, this grouping takes Sorensen’s basic underlying philosophy to its next step in terms of size, scale and repetition of forms. The move was conscious, coming out of a desire to emulate the phenomena of nature and to activate the negative spaces between shapes.

Perhaps this is most clearly evident in Chalice Forest, 1998-99, an installation of twenty “chalices” on bases.  Each chalice exists on its own, an inverted cone, both found in nature and for thousands of years copied by man because of the utility of its perfect shape. For Sorensen, these vessel forms tap into the history of clay and are a continuation of her earlier Princess Leia series.  The chalices are richly referential: one thinks of offerings, sacraments or even the Holy Grail. At the same time, the folds of the clay, the variation of the surface playing back and forth between smooth and rough textures, and the subtle changes of color speak more to the landscape than to a man-made form.  Grouped together, there is a visual rhythm, almost a staccato effect activated by the play between negative space and positive space.

A similar effect is achieved by the five wall installations, Grottos, 1998, San Andreas, 1999, Pyramids, 1999, Shields I, 1999, and Shields II, 1999, in which forms taken from nature are repeated in a pattern across the wall.  Grottos was inspired by a visit to several caves in Aspen, where rocks were smoothed by ice flows thousands of years ago. Like most of Sorensen’s work, Grottos can be read on several levels, including as a literal translation of nature, as stalactites and stalagmites, as petrified limbs, or even as abstracted human forms.  San Andreas, also an elongated form but with horizontal splits, is more a metaphor for the shifting and moving of the Earth’s crust, while the Shields – with their crudely rounded forms and textured surfaces with vague impressions and gouges – bring to mind a prehistoric talisman.  Interestingly, it is the Pyramids that are the most realistic, their shape directly related to idealized forms of the mountains, their coloring and stratification coming out of Sorensen’s surroundings in Colorado.

Sorensen also looks to archeology, architecture, and mythology for inspiration.  Graces, 1999, for example, is a flight of fancy inspired by the three daughters of Zeus.  Artists ranging from Botticelli to Rubens have seen in the Three Graces metaphors for Bloom, Mirth and Joy.  Sorensen plays with the vessel form by inverting the bottom and joining it in the center so that the works can be read both as mirrored vessels and as the female form.  Here, the folded clay recalls drapery or flowing cloth, imparting movement and an anthropomorphic quality to the forms. The three gently sway in unison, dancing to an internal rhythm. These also can be read on many levels: as vessels, as dancers (in abstracted form), or as metaphor for femininity and / or movement.

Probably the most accomplished of Sorensen’s work to date – both in terms of sheer scale and technical mastery – is her large-scale installation Caryatids, 1998 (cover).  Inspired by the female columns of the same name at the Acropolis in Athens, these columns are undulating forms that recall the human form and the endless columns of Constantin Brancusi.  Their surfaces are rough.  Embedded stones in the clay result in an undulating surface texture.  Darkened areas that give the impression of negative space are created by an organic material that is worked into the clay and burned out during the firing. At a height of between eight and ten feet, the Caryatids are just over human scale. Together, the eight create an environment that the viewer visually walks through.  As Sorensen notes: “It is the space between these totems that gives one the feeling of monumentality, of protectiveness, of being close and in tune with the spirituality of nature.”

A distinctive attribute of this body of work – apart from the formal qualities previously discussed – is the grainy, rock-like textures and blushes of color Sorensen has been able to achieve through a multifaceted process. Much of it is a continuation of an earlier technique in which she embedded rocks from the riverbeds of Colorado into the clay. The heat of the kiln caused the rocks to explode, imparting not only a textured surface but also tiny flecks of color and reflection. Although she has used it in the past, for this series, Sorensen relied more heavily on a technique called soda firing, in which soda ash, dissolved in boiling water, is compressed and sprayed into a kiln heated to approximately 2,100 Fahrenheit.  When the molten soda, which is salt based, hits the surface of the clay, it creates a natural glaze. For example, copper results in green and cobalt in blue. In addition, any stones on the surface will melt in the kiln simulating a volcanic surface. “What makes my method unique,” Sorensen has observed, “is the combination of stones and soda firing that creates a varied and exciting surface.” Sorensen has also made use of paper clay, a clay mix in which paper pulp is added to the medium, giving the final piece both physical lightness and strength.

The distinguishing characteristic seen throughout Sorensen’s work is a love of the material, a connection to a process of metamorphosis that takes clay from the earth and transforms it through fire. There are no guarantees when an artist works this way; much is left to chance and the natural interaction of materials. As she has observed on many occasions, “I both trust and gamble with the fire.”

Over the years, Sorensen’s development as an artist has not just been a formal pursuit, is has also been working towards a synergistic relationship with her materials.  With each new body of work, she progressively surrenders to the inner life of the clay. The surfaces of the Chalices and Caryatids or the off-axis shapes of the Shields, with their rawness and unevenness, are as much about the essence of clay as they are about a formal shape imposed upon it.  One thinks of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an elusive philosophy that celebrates simplicity and natural processes. Clay, because it must be first shaped and fired, embodies the concept of wabi-sabi. The resulting cracks, blushes, glazes, and even the final shape illustrate notions of metamorphosis that the material undergoes through shaping and while in the kiln. One of the most important concepts of wabi-sabi is a connection with the “inner soul” of the material. This connection, it seems, is the unifying force behind the newest body of work by Barbara Sorensen.

Sue Scott, Independent Curator and Author