One of the first exhibitions to debut in Bale Creek Allen’s new Fort Worth gallery location is a selection of sculptures and drawings by James Surls. Surls’ work has been shown in and acquired by Fort Worth museums, but this exhibition is his first gallery show in the city. And though the artist is known for his large-scale wood and steel sculptures, Axe and Pencil, showcases some of Surls’ drawings alongside smaller sculptural works, which were part of a larger exhibition, Side by Side: George Tobolowsky and James Surls, at the National Center for Jewish Art at the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas earlier this year.
Last month, I stopped by BCA Gallery to chat with Surls about the show. As someone who is mostly familiar with Surls’ sculptural works, I was interested to learn more about his drawings.
Surls explained: “I’ll tell you, it’s a long story about showing drawings. When I showed at Allan Frumpkin Gallery in the early 80s in New York, he would not show the drawings. He said he didn’t want to confuse the critics. And ultimately, that’s kind of what brought our demise, because I thought, ‘I don’t do work to confuse or not to confuse.’ That’s not a consideration… so it kind of bothered me. Then I started showing with Marlborough, one of the best galleries in the world, and I was with them for about nine years and they wouldn’t really show the drawings either. My thinking was, to tell you the truth, that there was so little money in them that they could make more money if they sold the sculptures. That’s a commercial answer that I made up… an assumption.”
Surls went on to discuss the new drawings in Axe and Pencil, which were completed in 2021. He told me that these were made during a 25-day fast (under a doctor’s supervision). Though he lives in Colorado, Surls stayed in San Jose, California while fasting. Each day he would wake up and watch the sunrise amidst the fog, and inevitably would start in on a drawing. Over the course of the fast he made a total of 63 drawings, completing 2-3 drawings each day.
The drawings feel like a study in control and chaos. Though their bold lines convey a sense of certainty and precision, the surreal imagery of repeating organic and human forms is dizzying. In some instances, the drawings are not at all what I would have expected from Surls based on his sculptures, but seeing them, there is a clear connection to his iconic works — the flower shapes, the repetition of form, the allusion to movement.
Alongside the pencil on paper drawings are a handful of drawings on photographs, completed in 2018, that were also exhibited at BCA Gallery in Austin in 2019. For these, Surls worked with a photographer who brought in a Hasselblad camera to take extreme close-up images of Surls’ worktable. The steel table, which was used for over 40 years in his studio, was rotated to sit perpendicular to the floor so it could be photographed. Once the prints were completed, Surls drew directly on the prints with an oil pencil. His lines create shapes that are often present in his other work like prisms, circles and ovals, and abstracted petal-like shapes. With so much disorder inherent in the photographic backgrounds, the drawings themselves, though simpler, stand out all the same.
Axe and Pencil is on view through January 2, 2023 at Bale Creek Allen Gallery in Fort Worth.