To walk into Andy Moerlein’s “wood stone poem” (on view through June 6, 2021) is to enter a magical space, filled with fanciful and ecstatic forms stretching out in welcome. A three-foot-tall, 60-year-old Ficus retusa bonsai from Taiwan at the entrance to the exhibition offers a clue to Moerlein’s recent explorations, which continue his longtime interest in Asian art and poetry. His current research involves the study of bonsai, miniature trees nurtured in containers, grafted and pruned into living sculptures. These ideas have almost organically extended into his wood sculptures, as forms and materials conjoin in indecipherable ways.
In Elegy for the Earth, three iridescent blue, over-life-size gestural forms reminiscent of trees rise from the ground. The central element supports a large artist-constructed “stone.” Moerlein writes: “Will the trees forgive us? Will the stones care?” A reference, perhaps, to future thoughts about what is transpiring in the ecological world today. The three swaying forms recall figures moving in step, in a procession.
The central installation, Distilling the Essence of Stone, relates to aspects of the physical world that we barely consider. It is an active meditation on the fact that stones paradoxically contain water, that stones under extreme pressure become diamonds, and that mineral earth contains all time. Multiple reflections on the state of our environment inevitably enter the consciousness. Two tall Sentinel figures guard the colorful, mixed-media flow emanating from a levitating stone in this fascinating sculptural expression that defies categorization.
The diminutive Object continues the theme of movement. With joined, open “legs” and a leaning “body,” it seems an abstraction that stands in for a figure—although at the pinnacle, there is a tiny evocation of a scholar’s stone, which certainly enhances the mystery of the piece. References to scholar’s stones also appear in Moerlein’s more familiar stacked pieces, both large and small, influenced by the nature of water shaping stone. Some appear to be hybrids of scholar’s stones and bonsai; all are skillfully carved, constructed, and sensitively colored.
In Snagged—one of the most fanciful sculptures—a six-foot-high, luminescent violet spiral opens into a wide, graceful circle. Three-pronged fish hooks (attached by light wire) “dance” into space, punctuating the surrounding field of energy. Rooted in a solid base reminiscent of Moerlein’s constructed and carved scholar’s stone sculptures, Snagged is a poem in motion. The shadow it casts against the wall functions like a partner.
These new works, inspired by Moerlein’s fascination with bonsai forms, take his work to an entirely different level. To share his interest, he invited artists working in other media, noted scholars, and writers to participate in a dialogue with his sculptures. (Opening night featured presentations by Michael Levin, a bonsai master gardener, and Mary Graham, a landscape painter who has cultivated bonsai for several decades.) Basho’s haiku, which offer a unique view of a familiar scene or experience, definitely come into play here. “wood stone poem” is a fitting title for an expert and enticing blending of the obdurate and the ephemeral, in the hands of a master sculptor.