Art Review: Axel Stohlberg's 'Structures,' Axel's Gallery & Frame Shop | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: Axel Stohlberg's 'Structures,' Axel's Gallery & Frame Shop


Published January 29, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 29, 2022 at 5:06 p.m.

  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Axel Stohlberg

Artist Axel Stohlberg finds endless inspiration in the standard shape of a house — a square or rectangle with a sloping roof. There's no need to read a deep philosophy into that choice, he said; in his work, the house represents what many might expect: a nest, a shelter, security.

The house shape is so prominent in Stohlberg's work that it's become a signature motif for the 68-year-old Middlesex artist. Not that he hasn't tried to move beyond it. In a 2010 interview, Stohlberg told Seven Days that his show at T.W. Wood Gallery in Montpelier was a swan song for the house. For a time, he focused on other subjects in his painting, drawing, sculpture, collage and assemblage. But the house kept coming back.

The image is central to his exhibition currently on view at Axel's Gallery & Frame Shop in Waterbury. (That name is no coincidence: Stohlberg owned the business for 30 years before selling it to Whitney Aldrich in 2013.) Titled "Structures," the show comprises 29 house-themed works. The nine hardware-cloth sculptures and nine wood wall reliefs have been exhibited previously; the 11 framed collages have not.

None of the works is titled. Why? "I thought maybe they could stand by themselves," Stohlberg said after consideration. "Maybe the viewer can come up with something for themselves."

Axel Stohlberg show "Structures" - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Axel Stohlberg show "Structures"

Working with hardware cloth — a stiff wire mesh with small square holes — is relatively new to Stohlberg, who first came across the material a few years ago. He likes creating a three-dimensional structure through which you can see an object — glass, kindling, a mirror — that he has put inside.

Despite their lack of titles, each tabletop sculpture represents something to Stohlberg. In one, a piece of hardware cloth spray-painted blue is positioned inside a tall, rectangular building. It's a blue wave, he said.

Near the front of the gallery, a similar shape built from hardware cloth is filled with stacked four-inch squares of glass. While constructing this piece, Stohlberg said, he discovered that the glass pieces reflected different colors — green, blue, purple, pink — when light hit them. He loves the water-like effect.

Perhaps the most meaningful sculpture here is one that has a plumb bob suspended from the closed top. The red weight with a pointed tip is the very one Stohlberg used for a plumb line when building his post-and-beam house in Middlesex at age 24. It was the home where Stohlberg raised his two children. "I'm very proud of that house," he said. "I was very attached to it."

Eventually he sold the place "to a very nice family" and moved away. Back in Middlesex now, he admitted it feels "a little weird" to drive by his former home.

The houses in Stohlberg's collages are cut from Bristol board, an uncoated paperboard named for the town in southwest England where it was first produced. He used a single-edge razor and straight-edge cutting guide to create house-shaped silhouettes, which he then blackened with acrylic paint or China markers. Gray Bristol board, serving as the ground, has been mounted with each house on white Bristol board. Stohlberg then matted and framed the collages.

His wood wall reliefs are cut with table and band saws. Stohlberg explained that he picks up pieces of spruce of various sizes — four by four or six by six inches — and just starts cutting. That's when ideas come to him.

"I look for angles I like, and I think about what angles will look good painted a contrasting black," Stohlberg said.

The black is gesso, which has a matte look and feel. "I started using black gesso as a negative space," the artist said. "You get this void that contrasts with the light wood."

Axel Stohlberg show "Structures" - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Axel Stohlberg show "Structures"

Commenting on a trio of reliefs hung together in the exhibition, Stohlberg said he was thinking about the negative space as he cut the one on the left. "I liked the contrast, and how it makes [the relief] more abstract," he said.

For the center relief, Stohlberg glued together two pieces of wood, the back one forming a "shadow" of the front one. He was pleased with how the angles abstracted the shape featured in the third relief, he said.

Stohlberg's love for making art goes back a long way — to age 4. "I remember sitting at a card table drawing with crayons on paper while my mother ironed at the ironing board, watching our black-and-white TV," he said. "We always lived in the same house growing up; we never moved away, and that was really important to me."

Stohlberg believes that everyone can relate to the image of a house. "As soon as you see it, you know what it is," he said. "No matter where in the world you are, you know that shape."

But the implications of the shape are up to the viewer — perhaps another reason he didn't title his works.

"If you give something a name, it leads you down a story line and stops there," Stohlberg said. "When people come to see 'Structures,' I want them to create their own stories from the pieces."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Home Sweet Icon | Axel Stohlberg, Axel's Gallery & Frame Shop"

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