Aaron Spangler’s basswood carvings are rife with imagery that reflects his interest in Native American mysticism, natural phenomena and contemporary rural American life. Despite his use of traditional materials and methods, Spangler’s work is more about a collective and personal connection to the Northern Minnesota landscape than a fetishization of tradition itself.
The first of two galleries presented Homeschool (all works 2013), which was also the title of the show. A few feet high, it is a small chair roughly hewn from a log. This plainly constructed, functional sculpture was meant to offer a place to sit and reflect upon the other works in the room; these included low-relief carvings on the wall, freestanding totemic sculptures and a two-dimensional frottage (a crayon rubbing on linen taken from one of Spangler’s own carvings).
In a recent interview, Spangler discussed the proliferation of “homesteaders” near his hometown of Park Rapids, Minn. The title of Praying Hands, a nearly 6-foot-wide and 46-inch-high black wall relief, alludes to the predominance of Christianity among these homesteaders. Wings (bird or angel), cosmic radials, stylized human arms and geometric shapes are carved across the surface of the sculpture. Its irregular shape suggests both the form of two hands clasped in prayer and Elizabeth Murray’s shaped canvases from the 1980s. The current homesteading movement, like the back-to-the-land trend of the ’60s, embraces a willful detachment from technology-driven commerce and a spirit of resourcefulness-all values which are embodied in Spangler’s work.
Idol, a freestanding, zoomorphic sculpture measuring 64 by 48 by 17 inches, resembles an ancient reliquary as well as a wood-burning stove. Carved leaflike forms cover its surface. This dense network of concentric radial shapes is woven together by a series of fluid, vinelike grooves that create a thicket of botanical imagery. The sculpture is painted with a black gesso and graphite mixture that the artist has used regularly in his earlier sculptures.
Spangler has introduced color in some of these recent works. For Water, he left a water-logged tree trunk in his studio for nearly two years to dry. He then chiseled away the areas of rotten bark and sanded the log down to a bulbous column which he stained turquoise and mounted vertically on a rough wooden pedestal. Delicate fissures running the length of the sculpture poetically trace its decay.
The lyrical pattern of markings chiseled into the unpainted surface of the wall sculpture Stump Mountain, which is 62 by 53 by 5½ inches, underscores the work’s associations to rural American folk songs such as Ola Belle Reed’s “High on a Mountain” or Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” The mountain shape is likewise evocative of an arch, perhaps an ode to the Carpenter Gothic-style homes that dot the Midwestern landscape, including the famous Dibble House portrayed in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic (1930).
Spangler’s output is infused with a pragmatist ethos, evinced through the evolution of his working process. He came upon carving as his favored medium when he decided to incorporate some carved elements into a found object sculpture he was making. He grabbed a sharpened screwdriver for that piece. Though he uses chisels now, his carving technique is self-taught. Spangler’s curiosity about materials and techniques has yielded increasingly complex arrangements that are also conceptually rich.