See this: James Surls & Charmaine Locke, bigger than Texas

The show mingles work of Surls and Locke throughout the sprawling Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

All I Ever Wanted sounds suspicious on paper — a curiously quaint, husband-and-wife art exhibit that aims to show how each serves as the others’ muse, and how “their relationship acts as an essential force of inspiration” for the work. The exhibit’s title is even borrowed from a love poem he once wrote for her professing his eternal devotion.

But All I Ever Wanted turns out, in reality, to be anything but sentimental, and mostly because the spouses at the center of things are the no-bullshit duo of Jame Surls and Charmaine Locke. Neither makes art that’s particularly personal and each plots their own, individual course. The work is complementary, sort of — it’s not so connected though it looks swell together in the sprawling Colorado Spring Fine Arts Center — and it is free of  any cloying co-dependency or phony romance.

Charmaine Locke, Inner House, from 1981.
Charmaine Locke, Inner House, from 1981.

Surls and Locke live in the in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado where, like many people, they are transplants. He, more recognized than she by the commercial art establishment, is a Texan by birth and known for a larger-than-life personality. He calls it like he sees it and once, according to journalist Julia Reed, described the community of dealers and curators who make up the art world as a “sea of twits talking to other twits.”

His art, which he has been creating for most of his 73 years, is big, too. He makes sculptures, most famously out of wood, that he hacks and hews himself. The work on display at the Fine Arts Center, spanning decades, is a mix of media — bronze, steel, wood and more — but it is the wood that makes it memorable, finely crafted slices of mahogany and such, that are shaped like knives or paddles, little houses or diamonds, or petals that are connected together into giant flowers. There’s a bit of free associations to much of it; objects often are grouped together to create tableaus that are simply laid on tables or set on shelves.

The work has unquantifiable mystery, but also undeniable warmth, due in part to the way the museum has lit the objects. Some positively glow. The objects are simultaneously simple and complicated, lacking detail or decoration, but appearing purposeful at every turn. Surls work is interesting because it doesn’t fit easy categories. It feels folkloric but not outsider, hand-made but sly.

Locke is no supporting player here, though it’s hard to compete with Surls, mostly because her work is more varied and less cohesive in nature and you have to work harder to take it all in. How does a viewer absorb at once both Neuron Synapses, a flat, graphite-and-ink abstract drawing of something resembling the nervous system, and Tears, which has thick layers of wax and paint applied on a board and spells out the site of great atrocities, such as “Hitler’s Germany,” “Rwanda” and “Armenia.”

“All I Ever Wanted,” a retrospective of work by James Surls and Charmaine Locke, is at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Photos by Ray Mark Rinaldi

Though she does have some visual showstoppers in the mix. The exhibit’s opener, Inner House, is a human-scale hut made of pine that crosses borders of cultures and time periods. Her Open Book is a series of superhuman-scale, bronze sculptures shaped into a six-armed, goddess-like creatures. There are three of them set in a semi-circle and they hold books, eggs, flowers and other objects. Her work has a spirituality to it, though it feels matter-of-fact rather than mystical.

It’s not clear, really, what links Locke and Surls together other than decades of marriage, and dedication to their craft. They may be way in love, but they don’t actually seem to have influenced each other’s art-making habits all that much despite the show’s positioning. This exhibit, with dozens of pieces, is such a broad retrospective that it’s hard to see, on the surface, where they intersect and don’t. You could say, maybe, that they have shared the same geography, breathing in all that fresh Carbondale air since they relocated there in 1997.

Surls' Cutting Block with Wind, from 1994.
Surls’ Cutting Block with Wind, from 1994.

That’s certainly enough for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which makes a decisive move, not by showing them as a pair, but by showing them at all. The Fine Arts Center, though a series of well-researched exhibits over the past decade, has emerged as the final say on whose work matters in Colorado. A show there seals a regional artistic legacy and that goes for the living, like Surls and Locke, or the dead, like with 20th century painter Frank Mechau, the subject of a retrospective there earlier in 2016.

Curls and Locke may have made their fame back in Texas but “All I Ever Wanted” lays claim to them as Coloradans. Two decades in, that seems fair.


The poem.
The poem.

Here are some install shots:




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