Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 26, 2012

The sound of sculpture

Fueled with piano parts and sunlight, Terry Berlier's work brings acoustic acrobatics to the art gallery

by Karla Kane

The word "sculpture" may bring to mind images of solid marble figures by old masters, static and silent in hushed galleries. But visitors to "Sounding Board," Terry Berlier's new exhibition at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery on campus, will discover a multimedia collection of moving parts, interactivity, recycled materials and music.

The show consists of one brand-new piece and four other recently created sculptures. Some share themes: environmental concern, experimental sound, salvaged parts, the idea of "home." All reflect Berlier's unique vision for kinetic art.

"I like discovering new materials," said the artist, an assistant professor at Stanford. "I like jumping from medium to medium. My work crosses a lot of boundaries. I like what technology and resources can offer, but I'm also into analog."

Like a wind chime, creating music through natural energy, her piece "When Comes the Sun" is a circular, solar-powered acoustic guitar, with a rotating plectrum that strums, appropriately enough, "Here Comes the Sun" by The Beatles at varying tempos depending on the strength of the sunlight reaching it. Weaker sun allows it to strum at a gentle, lullaby pace, while at full strength it can zoom through the tune frantically.

The tempo variation pleases Berlier, who calls the piece a throwback to pre-digital music, "like a cassette tape dying or a vinyl record." Berlier created it while working in Norway, land of nearly 24-hour sunlight, in the summertime. She said all her work in Scandinavia orbited — no pun intended — around themes of sun and time, since the seasonal tie to sunlight is so prevalent there. Incorporating solar power into her art was a natural step. Not only does she strive for eco-friendly materials, but, she said: "I like that tie to nature. It's a nice way to bring in that element, to bring life into the piece."

Calling herself a lover of all music, she said the Beatles song was a natural fit, thanks to both its title and lyrics and the universal-recognition factor. Plus, "I think it's hilarious that a solar instrument is playing a song about itself," she said with a grin.

"Where the Beginning Meets the End" is another circular sound sculpture, this one featuring a stretched-out piano keyboard and including salvaged computer parts. "Homespun" creates a spiral-staircase-like shape out of old banisters and discarded domestic parts. "Acoustic Locator," a large wooden horn, was inspired by early military aircraft detectors. All three were created while Berlier was in residency at Recology, a San Francisco waste-reduction company. The materials used were all plucked from the landfill to be repurposed as art.

"This Side Up, Handle With Care" is the new piece created for this exhibition. It's a half-scale, twisted version of Berlier's own Craftsman-style home, made of salvaged Douglas fir wood, plywood and piano strings. She said the classic shape and scaled-down size of the house makes it resemble a fairytale house, or a child's idea of a home.

"This is the first time I've ever had a house," she said of her Oakland residence, "but the idea of home is universal. Just because it's my house doesn't mean you can't have an experience with it." The model house's contorted frame and tenuous walls can be seen as representing the recent housing crash, but the piano strings, though seemingly fragile, also provide stability. The musical walls invite viewers to "play" the sculpture by plucking, or with a violin bow. Though not a musician herself, Berlier said she is fascinated by the world of sound, and encourages both experienced musicians and novices to experience her audio-enriched sculptures hands on. She hopes her pieces can challenge and inspire notions of what makes something an instrument.

"I'm not interested in putting myself on stage but in inviting musicians I'm fond of and creating a stage for them," she said.

For Berlier, collaboration with others is one of the most rewarding aspects of her work, creating not only opportunities for technical and artistic growth but friendship as well. "I really enjoy collaborations with musicians and composers as well as other artists," she said. "It was really fun to have conversations with architects and designers, tapping into their expertise."

In addition to Berlier's many recent residencies, she's also been a teacher in Stanford's Department of Art & Art History, where she runs the sculpture department, for the past six years, teaching undergraduates and MFA students.

For a number of years before her arrival, Stanford's sculpture department was largely nonexistent, she said, and enrollment remains low compared to other art classes, perhaps due to the perception that it's an especially daunting discipline.

"Sculpture programs are always fighting for survival. Anything that's not painting tends to get lumped into 'sculpture' — light installations, sound — which is really exciting but makes it impossible to teach something of that scope in a 10-week class in a cohesive way.

"It's a level of commitment that, for a student who's not an art major, can be intimidating," she said. But it's rewarding, too, she said, as students learn to work with their hands, use equipment and build and install pieces. One recent student was thrilled to find she could operate power tools, which she'd never imagined she could do, Berlier said. "It blew her world away. People that stick with a sculpture class come out empowered."

She said she tries to get her students to think about the environmental and political impact of art, particularly how an artist's choice of material itself can make a statement.

"There's meaning derived from materials. Making specific choices — to work with plastic, Gummi Bears, whatever — that's adding a layer of content," she said.

"Sounding Board" is Berlier's first "big solo show" on campus and she looks forward to her students having the opportunity to witness all that goes into putting on an exhibition. "It'll be interesting to see their reactions," she said.

What: "Sounding Board," an exhibit of sculptures by Stanford artist Terry Berlier

Where: Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, 419 Lasuen Mall, Stanford University

When: Through Nov. 18. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://art.stanford.edu or call 650-723-2842.

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