Visions in metal | December 21, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 21, 2012

Visions in metal

Artists see the world in weighty media: bronze, screws and aluminum

by Rebecca Wallace

Don't call it "mixed-media." This sculpture by Ryan Carrington is screws in plywood, plain and simple as it is intricate.

Carrington bought each screw off the shelf at Home Depot, all 6,892 of them, and installed them in a big piece of wood to create a painstaking plaid pattern. Nothing pre-painted, nothing computer-generated. Just art by hand.

With screws and plywood, electrical wire and hard hats, and the occasional snow blower (he is from Wisconsin, after all), Carrington often uses art to pay homage to people who work with their hands. "It honors their perseverance and loyalty in taking unglamorous jobs seriously and executing them with both incredible precision and an artistic touch," he wrote in an artist's statement.

In "Heavy Routine," one of Carrington's sculptures on exhibit at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, a cast-iron hard hat crowns a pile of sand bags, arranged neatly with cast-iron work gloves and a sledgehammer. Nearby, he's made more plaids on plywood, using a carpenter's tool called a chalk snap-line. When you pull a string taut and snap it, it lays down a line of chalk.

"Those plaids essentially are tens of thousands of snaps with this tool," Carrington said. "There's a nice parallel to the repetitive motion of creating the drawings and the repetitive motion of manual labor."

In a way, Carrington's art has brought him full circle into the family trade. As he puts it, "I come from a landscaping family" near Madison, where he worked in his brother's landscaping business. He's also been a construction worker and a maintenance man.

"I've always had a background working with my hands," he said. "I feel like there's a relationship between sculpture and work ethic."

His brother, Carrington said, appreciates the tribute. "He is a quiet man, but I know that he is really proud to have had such a huge influence on me and my art," the artist said. When Carrington had his MFA show at San Jose State University last year, his brother surprised him by flying out to see it.

The current CSMA show, "Social Observations," is a two-artist exhibition that also features fellow sculptor Steve Davis. In a way, Carrington and Davis have been on parallel paths. They both have master's degrees in fine art from San Jose State, where they work at the university's foundry. Both teach at CSMA, and earlier this year they teamed up on a sculptural public-art commission called "Children at Play" at San Jose's Guadalupe Park.

The two artists, though, have very different voices. While the tone of Carrington's work is often earnest and straightforward, Davis enjoys walking on the edgy side. He's the type of artist who might sculpt a clown shooting a mime with a "BANG!" prop gun. Oh, wait. He actually did.

"Turf War" is the name of that small bronze. In the CSMA show it keeps company with another painted bronze clown, this one laying his head on a desk. The latter piece is called "Pressures of a Useless Career."

The mix of darkness and humor might echo Davis' early efforts to find his artistic voice. "I was trying to make work that was really heavy-hearted, and trying to change the world," he said. "Then one day I just came to my own conclusions: This isn't fun. It's kind of depressing me."

Interestingly, "Turf War" is fairly literal in its inspiration. It illustrates a quirky story that one of Davis' instructors once told him. "He said, 'I used to live in New Orleans and our neighbor was a clown and he was drunk all the time. One day, as I was coming down, he and a mime were in a fistfight on a corner over whose corner it was.'"

As Davis was working on the sculpture, he was just finishing graduate school. He also started thinking about how academics are always in a "turf war" for funding, space, approval. "Somehow the two ideas converged."

Davis often tries out his metallic ideas first in smaller sculptures because the materials are so expensive; a life-size casting can be $1,000. Large sculptures are also heavy and take up a lot of space. "I have a small studio apartment, and every one of these I make I have a new roommate," he said.

One work in the CSMA show that is full-sized is "Bianca On Her Sister's Birthday," a creepily compelling sculpture of what's obviously a very unhappy little girl. She peers around a gallery corner, her gold party hat askew, clutching a length of chain. Made of aluminum and found objects, "Bianca" is an adaptation of a sweet figurative sculpture that Davis and Carrington put in their Guadalupe Park piece.

"My work is a little more dark and twisted than anything that would go in the public," Davis said. "I think she's upset that it's her sister's birthday and it's not about her today. Maybe she's going to chain her parents' car to the refrigerator, and when they pull out it'll pull the house down."

Besides enjoying the dark side, Davis good-naturedly admits to a love for fire. Working at the foundry is a joy for him. "I get to be a big kid. I get to make controlled fires and explosions, and do things that are way too dangerous to do."

As young artists, Carrington and Davis are both coming to terms with the varied responses that viewers can offer. Both have gotten a lot of positive feedback on their art. Not everyone gets Davis' dark humor, though. "I get a lot of puzzled looks," he said, adding, "That means somebody's at least thinking about it."

In Carrington's case, some people have responded to his sculptures by defending how hard white-collar people also work. He agreed that they had a point, and began a series with a necktie motif. At CSMA, "White-Collar Pop" mixes various working worlds, with a necktie made from styrofoam and Department of Transportation reflective tape.

"I decided that it wasn't necessarily by intention to be exclusive," he said. "It became important to me to also respect the hard work that can happen behind a computer screen."

In January, Carrington plans to show another piece at Palo Alto's New Coast Studios (formerly Fibre Arts Design Studio) that will take the necktie theme into edgier new territory. Called "Middle Management," the work is composed of a pitchfork stabbed into a mound of 300 ties. Blue collar meets white collar in a changing world where labor is being sent overseas and fewer people are working on farms.

The piece will be part of the January group exhibit called "Transformation." Carrington thinks the theme is apropos for his installation. "It's not hay; it's been transformed into neckties. At the same time, this is the transformation of America's attitudes."

What: "Social Observations," an exhibit of works by Ryan Carrington and Steve Davis

Where: Mohr Gallery, Community School of Music and Arts, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View

When: Through Jan. 27. The gallery is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 to 3.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Go to or call 650-917-6800, extension 305.