"It works." According to Jerry Wingren, that's what sculptors say when no other words will suffice. High up on a Colorado mountain top in Wingren's sculpture garden, that's precisely what I kept thinking.
My meeting with Wingren, an internationally known sculptor, was precipitated by a trail of phone messages during which I learned that he was somewhere in Alaska. One day I accessed my voice mail and was startled to receive a deep - no, cavernous - and gravelly voice thundering into my receiver. I felt my pupils widen as Wingren suggested that I meet him halfway up the canyon highway and then he would guide me the rest of the way up precarious 10-foot wide dirt roads to his abode.
I knew we were almost there when I started seeing odd, angular, and strangely exciting shapes rising up out of the alpine terrain, like whale sightings in an open ocean. Suddenly, I felt like a kid on an Easter egg hunt, glancing in all directions -- wanting to see more, more. Stark white marble and tarnished steel forms that bore not the faintest resemblance to the surrounding fauna seemed oddly organic and subtly cooperative with the mountain vegetation. This theme of juxtaposition would visit me over and over as I spoke with Wingren and viewed his work.
For example, although his sculptures interact with their host environments like earnest voters in a thriving democracy, their vocabulary is nevertheless both strident and singular. Like Wingren himself - who doesn't like to mince words - there were no grey areas, no middle ground in my reaction to them: they embodied clear, clean slices of thought and presence. To me, even the most abstract piece was a Him or a Her. I have seen sculpture set up in other outdoor venues - and much of it reminds me of car junk. But you know its good stuff when the awesome beauty of a mountain peak doesn't diminish its impact, but rather works with it like a noun and its adjective.
The Desire Series was represented by a tactile trio of white marble creations, a study of voluptuousness. I couldn't help but ask who she was. He insisted that they are not all female. Eyeballing one of them, I impetuously offered my interpretation of body parts. He replied with a shrug, "I was actually thinking of wings. In the back of my mind I think I knew she was getting ready to take flight." With a rueful smile he added, "And she did." Indeed, I felt flush with embarrassment over the naked intimacy generated by running my hands over its curves.
So I blinked hard and when I opened my eyes, I practically tripped over a piece for The Aperture Series. It was sitting like a Buddha on the corner of the deck, with tiny, important windows precision-cut into its fat, polished mass. Rock and sun would connect to create a slow dance of light and shadow, form and movement, as beams shone through the openings.
Later, as we munched on a smorgasbord of salami, cheese, and bread, Wingren explained his fascination with moving mass around. The appliances and work tables in the kitchen are actually on wheels so he can indulge himself. The Tilt Series evolved from this relationship of mass to gravity, and many of the works show gracefully bulky forms balanced on miniscule points of reference - thus eternally teetering on the brink.
The Totem Series was essentially reactionary, Wingren says, pointing to one of his Totems and shouting for effect, "Hey - lighten up! Get UP there, damn it!" And sure enough, the wood pieces and other mounted shapes are practically wafting up in the air, laughing at gravity and as gracious as soundless wind chimes.
As Wingren joined two fellow sculptors to work in the open-air studio, I was free to wander and gawk, never far from the chipping, sawing, and sanding sounds percolating through the late afternoon twilight.