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Art Review: ‘John Bisbee: New Blooms,’ Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education


Published February 12, 2014 at 4:00 a.m.

Maine sculptor John Bisbee calls his exhibit at the Pizzagalli Center "New Blooms," a name that suggests, say, pretty floral watercolors. In fact, his medium could not be more different. His massive sculptures and installations are made from nails, thousands and thousands of them. Specifically, they are called Bright Common nails, or tie spikes, and they are 12 inches long.

If you're wondering what a person could do with these besides affix boards to each other, you should meet the ebullient Bisbee, a sculptor in residence and instructor at Bowdoin College who's been working with nails for 28 years. And you should see "New Blooms," which, by his own assessment, is his "best work yet."

The title of the show is apropos, even if there are no pastel pigments in sight. Two of the enormous installations do have floral motifs. "Pinwheel" consists of a series of flowers outlined against the entire south wall of the gallery, each covering some five feet in diameter and gently seguing into its neighbors. Pounded into curvy shapes, the nails-cum-blossoms take on grace and movement.

Bisbee is not the first artist to evoke nature with man-made materials, but in the marvel that is "Floresco," he has literally forged a shape that marries the geometric to the organic. And it is difficult to describe. Suffice it to call the piece a four-sided floret, with each side consisting of three slightly curved nails arranged à la pinwheel, and each point welded to another point. Bisbee further disciplines dozens of these precisely formed florets into a series of diamonds on a long wall.

If you stand across the room and squint your eyes a bit, the work resembles an outsize argyle pattern. And if you think about the weight of the material — measured in tons — you may wonder both how the wall supports it and how the resulting creation can look so delicate. The shadows created by every line maximize the lacy effect.

Light and shadow are strategic in "Pelt," too. Swooping across the entire length of the wall opposing "Floresco," the installation consists of some 5,300 nails driven in at angles in seemingly windswept whorls. The title is apt: As a whole, the piece suggests the multidirectional fur of a Rhodesian ridgeback. A closer stance presents an entirely different aspect — a view of the trees and not the forest, as it were — and impresses on the viewer just how much exacting measurement and manual labor went into the installation of this work. Like a Tibetan sand mandala, "Pelt" conveys a sense of evanescence, too. After all, when de-installed, it will once again become a pile of nails.

Two of Bisbee's freestanding sculptures in "New Blooms" have a permanent form, with the nails corralled into objective, monolithic shapes. The most literal piece, punningly titled "Hearsay," takes the shape of a giant gramophone horn. Curvy and curlicued nails form its walls, and the exaggerated bell, nearly eight feet high, all but invites viewers to curl up inside.

"Seed," which rests on its side in the foyer, is yet again composed of many hundreds of nails. These are untreated, so that rust has begun to affect the color. The nails are pounded into slightly wavy, organic forms and bundled lying in the same direction; the finished piece consists of many layers welded into a fat capsule tapered at each end. While its name implies the possibility of a fecund explosion, the materiality of "Seed" gives it a solid, muscular presence. It is somehow lovable and intimidating at the same time.

Bisbee's third floor sculpture is appropriately titled "Thicket." Its components are dozens of individual nails fashioned into stalks, the heads flattened to form petals, and all are gathered into a dense, unruly jumble. While much of the work here references nature, this thigh-high piece actually resembles it.

"New Blooms" validates Bisbee's unending fascination with his medium, not to mention its rigorous difficulty. He continues to put the common nail to audacious purposes, creating works of art that delight, amaze and expand the very definition of transformation.

"John Bisbee: New Blooms" at the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, Shelburne Museum, through May 26.