The Versatility and Lure of Wood

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Sam Hernandez was born in the Bay Area and got his BA at Hayward State. In 1974 he received his MFA in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and began to teach on the college level at East Texas State University. When he arrived in the South Bay area in the late 70s, and began teaching at Santa Clara University, he brought a buzz with him. His work was unlike anything else going on around here and he was young and already had a promising career on the burner. His sculpture was abstract and expressionistic, with energetic and free forms springing from wood. It had a conversation with the currents of sculpture in the much more established North Bay art community where artists like William Wiley and Robert Hudson were painting their works, playing in a light hearted vein, and exercising a wry humor. Hernandez’ career has been highlighted by such honors as an NEA Grant and Fulbright Fellowship and many years service as Chair of the Santa Clara University Art Department. Now a resident of Santa Cruz, and still teaching at SCU, Hernandez continues his exploration of the sculptural forms that have always driven him.

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Sam Hernandez’ Top Mounter from the 80s, evoking the figure with humor

Hernandez is prolific. He acknowledges and celebrates certain fundamentals of wood. He has executed his series in varied scale. Hernandez has played wood against metal, natural surfaces against painted and color-washed surfaces, milled work against naturally occurring forms and the figurative or organic against the geometric. The work has mostly maintained a vertical orientation that often evokes the figure. Through nearly forty years of work, he has referenced art historical styles such as African art, naive art and cubism that fold easily into the forms he hews. There has been humor, a parody of art history and a charming playfulness.

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Sam Hernandez’ The Way of the Intercepting Fist, 2009 at William Siegal Gallery, Santa Fe

In his most recent work, on exhibition at the William Siegal Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Hernandez recalls many of his previous pleasures and incorporates them with new twists, (literally). The new work is perhaps more spare and simple, more clear and pure in its character. The two series in the show play off each other, like male and female, actor and observer, or old wood firmly rooted to the earth and new wood that is growing and stretching upward. In the first series, two of the works, recalling the angles and stylistic elements of many of Hernandez’ earlier work, are bold in their cubistic figurative qualities. Then, in the case of pieces drawing from the gestures of the Thonet bentwood chair, the forms become more loose, graceful, and even dance-like.

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I’m Listening by Sam Hernandez

As a chair mimics aspects of the seated body, these disassembled and reconfigured bentwood chair parts begin to spiral, reach, bow and lift, as a dancer might. Works like I‚Äôm Listening, Blue Loon and Thonet Strut suggest a stop-motion film of the figure caught in successive postures that remain visible for a while, even as the next views appear. These gestural elements, some with long reaches and some with closely arching movements, bend, wrap around each other, and weave together. They are held firm in some places by ebony plugs, and in other places the ebony plugs serve as short rhythmic repetitions, like musical counterpoint. As the sculptures suggest movement, the small fingers that begin to reach out might be seen as new limbs on bare branches, beginning to grow. They are light and optimistic. Hernandez pays careful attention to the “symbiosis” he feels is essential in the relation of the sculpture to its base. In this series, the lower knot of limbs grows out of a gnarly chunk of older wood that appears to have been sliced open to allow it to release new life.

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Sam Hernandez’ 2009 Thonet Strut

The Way of the Intercepting Fist and Prophet are the venerable and stern counterparts that contribute weight and a deep drumbeat to complete the score of this show. Hernandez built these two additive pieces out of tree stumps he had cut at human height on his property in Watsonville. He carved the stumps and allowed them to age for five years before cutting them down completely and taking them into the studio. There, vertical and horizontal cuts and new pieces, dark and light contrasts, old weathered and new wood began to play off of each other. Their figure-like countenances are more confined in space than the other works in the exhibition, but full of life. They jump up and down. They reach out to embrace the space around them. They also have their interesting and particular supports that are completely different from the organic bases beneath their bentwood cohorts. These bases are stable platforms, made by joinery and playing the elegant traditions of Asian woodworking off of the raw energy of cubism and its African influences. Hernandez has another laugh as he give these two figures — which are basically torsos – their legs, as they are supported in both cases by table-like supports with legs.

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Prophet, 2009 by Sam Hernandez

In the show at William Siegal, Hernandez shares his flat work with viewers for the first time. His mixed media painting which he calls the New Ledgers, reference the “ledger” drawings of the Plains Indians in the late 1800s and early 1900s that documented the events of their lives. Hernandez borrows their unschooled style of drawing and records objects, events, gifts and forms that intrigue him in his own life. These more literal images shed light back onto many of the influences that Hernandez absorbs in creating his sculpture.

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