Sources as diverse as African sculpture, Oceanic objects, Meso-American art, and Native Amercian traditions inform the stunning sculptures and paintings of internationally recognized artist Sam Hernandez at Alex Bult Gallery. Add to these a fascination with Asian philosophies, research into Spanish and other European art works, and a poetic, metaphoric sensibility and you have some of the most exciting and moving works I have seen in some time.
Hernandez, whose Spanish-Catalan heritage is filtered through Cuban, Mexican, Californio and American lenses, was born in Hayward in 1948. Educated at what is now CSU East Bay in Hayward and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he has traveled extensively in Spain, becoming familiar with its Catalan, Celtic, Basque, Arabic and Sephardic traditions, as well as developing egoless, stream-of-consciousness working methods derived from Asian disciplines.
Hernandez is best known for his vigorous, exquisitely crafted wood and bronze sculptures. Examples from the past 14 years make up the bulk of the show at the Bult Gallery. Immediately you are struck by the rich and evocative figurative abstraction “Martyr With a Red Arm.” Combining rough and sawn wood – cedar, madrone, walnut, and ebony – the totemic figure bears an L-shaped red arm painted with Japan color and a red wedge near its bottom that call up associations with ceremonial Hawaiian bowls as well as European constructivism. The figure, pierced by bolts, is both raw and sophisticated and reminds one of a New World version of old master paintings of St. Sebastian.
“The Way of the Intercepting Fist,” perhaps a reference to an Asian martial art, is a bold, rough, Cubist sculpture that emerges from a piece of tree trunk. “Curious Fruit,” a patinated bronze piece, is so active and energetic that it seems ready to fly apart.
A dozen small bronze pieces from the series “100 Meditations” suggest a balancing act of forms derived from ancient scholar’s stones from China and Japan. Such stones were corporeal concretions that exemplified the spontaneous beauty and powerful forces of the natural world.
Those forces are also embodied in “Memorial to Tommy Tornado,” a wooden twister that rises up from a gnarled tree root. “Homage,” made of redwood, pool balls and Japan color, is a kind of squat stool that terminates in a mushroomlike shape from which a huge organic wood form rises up like an ominous cloud.
A grouping of works made of various woods and Thonet chairs (a kind of bentwood furniture) are playful jeu d’esprits. “Cadaques” is a nest of sinuous tendrils made of bentwood parts whose title refers to a Catalonian town much frequented by artists, among them Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
At the center of the show is “Corsario,” a piece from 1995 that seems a precursor to the direction Hernandez was to take in the 2000s. It’s a twisting, torquing, bandaged column of wood rising up from a tangled tree root that is a tour de force piece of carving and composition.
As compelling as Hernandez’s sculptures are a series of paintings that hover between two and three-dimensional works. Four intriguing works from a series titled “The New Ledgers” call up associations with American Indian ledger drawings. “El Ultimo Aliento” (The Last Breath) gives us an alien creature lying prone at the bottom of the picture expelling a stream of steam. “Reversal of Fortune” features a large crow hanging upside-down from a wire over a two-armed cross.
These symbol-heavy works are spare in execution but compelling. So are the massive canvases “Cantabrian Venture” and “Primary Sources.” The former, whose title refers to a Spanish mountain range, has a yellow ground on which a pair of sinuous eels intertwine under a table still life. The latter features an image of a blue monkey surrounded with smaller life forms – a paramecium, a frog, a bat, for example – and letters and numbers. These are elliptical but richly nourishing works.
Sam Hernandez: Sculptures and Paintings
Where: Alex Bult Gallery, 1114 21st St., Suite B, Sacramento
When: Through Feb. 7, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Information: (916) 476-5540