Whether he works in Cor-Ten steel, bronze or stainless steel, Richard Hunt's abstract works --now on display at Laumeier Sculpture Park -- are expressive and confident; also, Jiro Okura setsfree an invisible force of nature in his camphor-laurel sculptu

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Laumeier Sculpture Park

St. Louis Art Museum

Richard Hunt is one of this country's most respected and celebrated African-American artists, receiving more commissions for public works than any other sculptor working today. A retrospective of his public sculpture is now on view in the galleries at Laumeier Sculpture Park, along with a new permanent outdoor piece, "Linked Forms," that Hunt created especially for the park.

What's interesting about Hunt is not just his bold, forceful sculptural style; it's also the fact that its popularity is so enduring. Whether he works in Cor-Ten steel, bronze or stainless steel, Hunt's abstract pieces are expressive and confident — and they look as if they might have been produced 40 years ago. Hunt is a master of sculptural expressionism, persistently carrying out a tradition that reached its fevered peak in David Smith's works of the 1950s and 1960s.

That tradition in sculpture didn't die with David Smith, of course. There will probably always be sculptors carrying out the legacy of expressionism, laboring to make an art that embodies some sort of personal and universal truth, in spite of all the "80s-era post-structuralist vilification of such art and such assumptions. A number of contemporary sculptors work in this tradition today, but Hunt is significant for taking this kind of work public, in the high-profile commissions he has received in Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Detroit; and even St. Louis (see his 1991 "Expansion Column" downtown at the UMB Bank).

In the context of recent developments in public art, Hunt's pieces simply seem old-fashioned. His work is essentially formalist, consisting of complex abstract shapes, either resting solidly on plazas, springing from walls or evolving from sturdy pedestals. Hunt's sculpture appears at first glance to belong to the traditional "plop art," abstraction-on-a-pedestal approach to sculpture that "new school" public artists (think of Mary Miss, Maya Lin or Nancy Holt) have moved away from as they attempt to create a new model of public art based on the physical, visual and intellectual engagement of the viewers.

But despite these more progressive tendencies in public art, Hunt's works remain in high demand, and his public sculptures are more often than not quite successful and very popular. So he's clearly onto something, and the Laumeier exhibition gives viewers a chance to see just what that is. The show provides a sense of Hunt's working method — it includes lithographs and sketches, models and photographs of public works, in addition to sculptural pieces. It also allows a glimpse into the evolution of Hunt's style by representing relatively early public works, such as "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" (1977) in Memphis, alongside more recent ones, like "Wisdom Bridge" (1990) at the Atlanta Public Library.

To say that Hunt's work is formalist is not to say that the work lacks any kind of suggestion or meaning. On the contrary, his works are extremely evocative. Out of stable, blocky, geometrical plinths, his forms emerge as if taking flight, casting off the confines of the heavy pedestal, breaking free and soaring upward. He relies on the upward sweep and the soaring diagonal, the arcing curves that burst energetically toward the sky.

The Laumeier show includes several wonderful examples of Hunt's characteristic style. Particular standouts include "Asparagus Search" (1986), a bold color lithograph dominated by sweeping, diagonal lines; and the humorous "Balancing Act" (1995), a sculpture in which a jumble of lines and forms sits precariously on a solid vertical. One of the strongest sculptures in the show, and most typical of Hunt's work, is "Steelaway" (1995), a Cor-Ten construction that begins on the floor as a dense column that evolves into upward-reaching, flame-like forms. Almost all of the works in the galleries, whether two-dimensional studies, models or full-fledged sculptures, contain this suggestion of upward energy and forward movement.

And this may just be the key to his lasting popularity. Although Hunt's works may be abstract, they are loaded with positive metaphors. The expansive, upward gestures of the works effortlessly connote ideas like "achievement," "success" or "freedom," which means that they function particularly well in institutions like libraries and universities. "Freedman's Column" (1989) for Howard University in Washington, D.C., for example, seems like the perfect sculptural analog of the university's program; it appears to enact a struggle for freedom and an intense, energetic rush toward the sky.

Hunt's success suggests there is still a space, even a demand, for public sculpture in this traditional, by now even conservative vein. Hunt actually gets away with basing some of his works on biblical passages, which is usually a huge no-no in public art. He can pull this off, however, because his references and his forms are "universalized" — that is, generalized to the point that their fundamentally humanist sentiment is retained while all the recognizable biblical specifics are muted.

And although Hunt's work is clearly in line with the tradition of expressive modernism, it is hugely indebted to the classical tradition as well. It is great fun to see him combine the approaches in works like "Early Caryatid" (1986), "Middle Caryatid" (1989) and "Late Caryatid" (1995), small cast-bronze works that look like fusions of a David Smith Cubi and "The Winged Victory of Samothrace."

In the end, the Laumeier retrospective is a great success, because it allows a summary view of a public artist who is not easy to summarize. It's hard to come to terms with Hunt, a relatively conservative sculptor working in the (potentially) very progressive field of public art. Hunt's continued success as a public artist demands that we reconsider the state of the field in general, and resist jumping to quick conclusions about the future of public art. It may prove unpredictable indeed.

For that matter, Hunt himself may prove unpredictable in the future. An indication of this is outside the Laumeier galleries, in the area of the park known as the "Trova Woods," where Hunt's newly designed, permanent contribution to the sculpture park is located. "Linked Forms," a shiny stainless-steel construction, is suspended in air, hung by cables from three trees. The work combines a tubular, V-shaped element with unusually delicate, curvilinear forms, all held together in a tenuous equilibrium and frozen in flight. "Linked Forms" dispenses with the obvious upward gestures of Hunt's other works and concentrates instead on subtle contrasts of shape and line. It may signal a new direction for Hunt, a sculptor who, after a more than 30-year career, is still a major force in art.

Japanese sculptor Jiro Okura may not have achieved Hunt's level of notoriety in this country yet, but judging from his current exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, he undoubtedly will. Currents 78: Jiro Okura showcases the artist's stunning sensibility for natural materials and forms, tempered by a characteristically Japanese restraint.

The four multipart pieces in Okura's show are all part of a series titled Hamadryad, referring to the ancient Greek tree spirit. In his work, Okura intertwines this obscure element of Greek mythology with the ancient Japanese kami, or spirits that inhabit the mountains, forests and water of the earth. The sculpture he makes both captures and releases the energy naturally held in trees. The visual result is mesmerizing.

Okura works with planks of kusunoki, or camphor laurel, which he painstakingly cuts against the grain into narrow strips. He then reassembles the planks by gluing strips to one another so that they overlap. The formerly invisible cut edges of the strips are made visible in this way, and the rough edges of the chiseled line combined with the natural grain of the wood make for incredibly beautiful and subtle plays of line.

Although the technique is difficult to describe, and probably even more difficult to execute, the visual effect is unexpectedly gentle and soothing. Okura's pieces, arranged on the gallery floor and on two walls, create their own natural world that seems extremely calm and far removed from the museum's regular atmosphere. "Hamadryad-Forest" (1995) consists of six upright, treelike constructions; just a few feet away, the rippling arrangement of "Hamadryad-Waves" (1995), a series of low-lying arcs, appears to roll toward an imaginary shore.

Okura's technique does indeed seem to set free some invisible force of nature. What's more, the cut strips of wood release the scent of the camphor, which adds an intoxicating dimension to the gentle effect of the sculpture. The show makes a great sculptural follow-up to Structure and Surface, the exhibition of Japanese textiles also being shown at the museum. Okura's work in wood, and especially the minimal, Zen quality of his arrangements, has a natural affinity to the Japanese and Japanese-inspired textile pieces being shown downstairs. Currents 78: Jiro Okura is a gem of a show, once again proving that when all else fails, the museum's Currents series always delivers.

Richard Hunt's works are on view at Laumeier Sculpture Park through Oct. 3; "Linked Forms" is installed permanently on the park's grounds. Currents 78: Jiro Okura is on view at the St. Louis Art Museum through Sept. 6.

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