Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Sculpture Meets Utility

A new gallery embraces what furniture can be.


“Understanding” is a round table, measuring 4 feet across, that embodies the Castle spirit. The top is crafted of a traditional material, the warmest curly maple. The tabletop sweeps down— mushroomlike— to form a fluted pedestal base that touches the floor with a series of jagged points. Adding edginess to the situation are three prongs that radiate from the base and punctuate the tabletop like three spears through shield. The base’s surface is lacquered with overlapping shades of brown and gold paint to create a luxurious, luminous and deckled texture.

The same painted surface treatment, which from a distance reads as tooled leather, is found on other pieces. “Rabbit” is a side chair, but who knew? The Fiberglas seat is simply a solid cube. From this form sprouts a back that splays like bulbous rabbit ears. Here, the seductive, high-sheen glaze is applied in overlapping dark and light browns, greens and vivid golds. This piece, one of the simplest on display, evokes Castle’s early works from the early 1960s, when he took rectangular forms and jolted their symmetry with flowing, jagged or organic elements.

“Even Trade IV” is a side table with an oval dark walnut top that evolves into a base that recalls cypress knees. Here again, paint has been applied to create that mysterious, crackly finish, this time in blue, yellow and red.

Not all the pieces combine materials. “Last Judgement” is a mahogany cabinet with a laminated wooden base that evolves vertically into a forearm and an open-palmed left hand (with five fingers and a thumb, for some reason). The surface of this work is marked by irregularities reflecting the sculptor’s tools — and at the end of the day isn’t it the human touch that makes artist-designed work so compelling in a universe of mass production?

Two pieces— the wooden, full-length, Disneyesque “Floor Mirror” and “Aluminum Lamp,” each sculpted in a single medium — are just as effective and handsome as works fashioned from a mixture of materials.

If Castle’s works are equal parts artful and utilitarian, this may be because Castle holds degrees in both sculpture and industrial design. But his career took off just late enough for him to challenge the intellectualized, hard-edged aesthetic of the modernists who dominated European and American furniture design in the 1930s and ’40s. While Castle has let nature, humor, and increasingly color be his guide, purity of form has been his overriding paradigm.

Castle’s work has been shown at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and his works are coveted by a number of serious collectors locally. But this exhibition is an eye-opening primer for those ready to embrace what furniture can be.

And what a grand way for the spacious Rentz Gallery to open along Main Street’s gallery row, joining such neighbors as Artemis, Main Art, and Reynolds galleries and the Hand Workshop Arts Center.

Also currently on display at Rentz are large canvases, including abstracts and landscapes by a range of American artists — Liz Gribin, Frederic Kellogg, Armond Lara and William McCarthy. S

Wendell Castle’s work is on display at Rentz Gallery, 1700 W. Main St., through Dec. 2. Call 358-5338.

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