In the decade represented by his current show at Grimaldis, Wade Saunders' work has gone from the wall to the floor, from small to large, from smooth surface to rough and back again, from bronze to stone to wood and stainless steel. You could walk into the gallery and be told that these sculptures were by three or four different artists and believe it.
But with familiarity one discovers certain links among these works. Saunders likes words, for one thing, and his titles often provide leads to the mysteries, the multiple possibilities and the plays of opposites that one finds in these works. Saunders likes to present you with what appears a simple idea, but just as you think you're about to grasp it, it skitters away and hides in a cloud of complexity.
Take "Pupil," for instance, a painted bronze wall piece from the early 1980s "Subjects of the Artist" series. In the outline of an eye reminiscent of the CBS logo, a metal bar rises and parts into two white, egg-like shapes facing in opposite directions, each partly covered with a blue mantle. Pupil, of course, refers to a part of the eye and also to a student. The covered egg shapes are reminiscent of monks or nuns, but there's also a sexual overtone to the look of the piece. In its suggestion that television and its values have taken the place of God in contemporary society, it exists on religious as well as cultural and sexual levels.
Saunders' "Water Drawings" of the late 1980s are, here, 13 small cast bronzes arranged in a group in one corner; there have been many more -- as many as 80 -- shown at once, but even with this small group, the implications are manifold. They are neither drawings nor water, but small bronzes that would all hold water in some opening or depression. They suggest body parts and everyday objects -- a shirt, a bottle -- and they also look like discoveries from an archaeological dig, still encrusted with earth. Their suggestion of the persistence of things through the ages testifies both to the ephemerality of life and the mythical nature -- of progress -- we have always needed and will always need water, and vessels to carry it in.
Like these "drawings," a number of other works here speak of the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual, the
limitations of the one vs. the limitless nature of the other. This is perhaps most directly addressed in "Spirits," also from the "Subjects of the Artist" series. A blue bottle hangs on the wall, and above it hangs a gray spiral shape, as if it were smoke escaped from the bottle and solidified. Spirit, as Saunders points out, may refer to alcoholic beverages or to the jinni or genie in Islamic mythology. But in this spiral shape's ever-expanding circles it also suggests the spirit escaping the limits of the bottle-body, or of life.
A much more recent work, "On Being Blue," is a hollow cone shape of perfectly smooth wood, which is actually made of 13 strips, each a different width. Each strip has a window in it, through which one can see the inside of the work; there, the 13 parts are clearly delineated facets, and they are painted different colors of blue. The narrowest strip has a window at the very top of the cone, and the widest has a window at the very bottom. This, too, has its religious (Jesus and the 12 apostles) and spiritual (the outside vs. the inside) implications, but it also has something to say about the fragmented nature of communication, how we only "see" in bits and pieces, never whole.
To say that there are themes running through Saunders' sculptures is not to deny their variety, visual and otherwise. In fact, the artist manages a seeming paradox, a body of work that embraces both unity and diversity.
What: Wade Saunders sculpture.
Where:The C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Through May 29.