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Terrence Heath

WINNIPEG [Laura Alpert] (1973)

artscanada, December 1973 / January 1974.
[ 704 words ]


The twentieth century debate about art as object or art as action comes very much to the fore in the sculpture of Laura Alpert of the Winnipeg Art School. Her pieces seem unfinished, gestural, and even in a gallery they convey a strong sense of the movement of her hands over the partially worked blocks of wood.

Her most recent sculptures are chiselled from trees that have been cut into sections and then reassembled. She works the surface until the basic form begins to emerge, and the finished pieces can be experienced as physical acts rather than as visual objects. The process of chiselling wooden blocks is a slow, laborious one; it is strange to think of action sculpture in which the action is spread out over such a long period of time. The sculpture seems to be the end of a movement, like the tracks of a bird in cement or the rock strata of the earth. The sculptor has stopped and the piece is complete but not out of any intrinsic necessity of material or design. It is simply at an end of the time it took to be formed into the shape it is. In fact, time seems more involved in the pieces than space.

The eye movement is not controlled by spatial change in the work. Rather the eye simply rests and absorbs as much as possible of the form and then moves on to repeat the process. Each visual part is selfcontained and I did not feel any necessity to relate and unify.

These newer works contrast distinctly with Alpert's earlier plywood and steel sculpture. The earlier pieces were meant to be visually complete — objects to be looked at — but on the whole they were not successful. The failure of finishing revealed her lack of interest in this aspect of the work. An example of these 'marred' pieces, Seascape, is carved, laminated plywood with an interior piece of steel. It struck me as a good idea that failed on purely technical grounds. She seems to have concentrated on the final appearance of the very complex movement of the piece and the actual experience of movement is lost in the unsuccessful finish given the wood. Interestingly enough, the most satisfying earlier pieces I have seen are ones in which the amount of wood is proportionately smaller than the amount of steel. The hard surface of sheet metal retains its factory finish and the wood serves to emphasize its smoothness and completeness. One untitled piece, done in cherry wood and steel, which I have dubbed 'Hinged Victory', is very strong. Although there are visually unresolved elements, such as the use of bolts for the upright and welding for the horizontal joins, the tension of the balancing wood mass on top and the seemingly hinged metal sheets concentrates the eye like one-point perspective.

Of the recent works the largest is an interesting combination of rough and smooth finishing of wood. The central, chiselled tree shape is clothed in a smoothly sanded 'garment' of dowelled 2" x 4" ends. There is a strong tendency in modern sculpture toward the polarization of tactile experience, partly, perhaps, because of the variety of materials available. I felt that Alpert, however, is contrasting methods of working the materials rather than producing visually opposed experiences. The emphasis is now on the act of sculpting itself.

It is reasonable to expect that a sculptor who is so physically involved in the creation of three-dimensional shapes will allow the material to participate in the final form. But in Alpert's work, I had little sense of the material as such. Small soapstone pieces are chiselled and polished in very much the same manner as the wood. The material is forced to yield to her ideas and her physical acts, and there is a strong sense of her presence in the completed sculpture. In the October exhibition of her work at the Fleet Galleries in Winnipeg the entire room was filled with movement rather than with individual pieces of sculpture. Whether you became involved in the work or not, there was no sense of static museum pieces on display. Her hands had shaped the space.

artscanada, December 1973 / January 1974.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.


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