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Concrete ideas

Sculptors medium adds to message

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Jonathan Qualben defies the force of gravity. The Missoula sculptor has immersed himself in the medium of concrete to create, with authority and ephemeral grace, structures that dance and sway, structures that seem windblown when such a thing is impossible, art that speaks more of air than of its actual material.

Qualben’s new show, which dominates Missoula’s Dana Gallery through the month of January, is announced by two giant heads that sit in the Dana’s window. These male faces of giant force seem destined for public space. They indicate the sobriety of Qualben’s work, but their compact mass proves misleading.

More faces appear in profiles affixed to the walls, and 10-inch figures called “sketches” abound with a sense of curled, coiled contemplation. Ballerino Rustico, inspired by a trip to Cuba, shows a male figure mid-leap, his clothes puffing away from his body. Many of Qualben’s human forms have an intense privacy to them, as if the artist came upon them when they did not mean to be seen. Ballerino Rustico, however, is unusual for its triumphant sense of performance, its public declaration of artistic energy. The figure clutches some sort of stick, a sharp, strong, straight line that runs against the direction of the piece, extending below and above the human boundaries and announcing, very definitely, the figure’s insertion into the world.

It is Sunrise Overture that informs the entire show. The sculpture, which stands roughly 7 feet tall, seems to do the impossible. It is, at first, the figure of a woman standing, opening her chest and arching her back, head thrown back and throat exposed to the sky. The base of the sculpture looks like no more than hanks of grass gathered and twisted into a tornado’s wind tunnel that grows ever smaller as it descends to Earth. The figure seems to leap from an unseen confine, a great cry of the elements that bursts into a primal declaration of physical presence. “I am here,” she says. And then you start to notice that she isn’t.

Working with steel wire, Qualben constructs the form he envisions and then packs it with dense, wet sand. This will give him the shape he wants. Concrete covers the frame and he works quickly to shape it. The material will dry and harden within a few hours, allowing almost no time for repair or rework. The gestures and sweeps of his initial movements are what remain, the concrete seizing first instinct. Once the sand has dried, the artist empties it from the figure and is left with a concrete casting that elegantly suggests what is not there as well as what is.

Sunrise Overture, like many of the pieces here, shows both figure and shell, the interior of the woman scooped out and gone, the cast riddled with empty spaces and holes that look torn in the material, but that still trace a ghostly suggestion of what is missing. This is how Qualben achieves the unlikely effect of light and transparency with a material as dense and unyielding as concrete. All of the work in this show explores the friction between artist’s intention and literal realization. Concrete stands as the very rebuke an artist faces when he attempts to bring what is in his mind out into life.

In its earthy red hues, Qualben’s concrete shows its debt to clay, and the textures echo bronze as well. In the forms of people and faces that evoke death masks, the pieces seem to be archaeological treasures lifted from the depths of Earth. The masks, which hang in groups of three upon the walls, are themselves bitten off, incomplete, parts of the shell missing. Together they make an imposing exhibit. They feel at once solid and decaying, the great holes in the concrete a terrible sort of decomposition that shouldn’t be, yet is.

Qualben’s work of the last five years has been focused primarily in this medium and has been concerned with capturing this sort of tension. After Sept. 11, he was commissioned by patron and activist Rev. Gail Burwa to make a work of peace for Atlanta’s Carter Center, and his later pieces, which have grown increasingly stately and massive, bear the terrible beauty of destroyed buildings, the shocking collapse of things that shouldn’t yield—an artistic echo of the Twin Towers, where Qualben’s brother worked and died.

Spring and Autumn also stand tall and demand the respect of generous outdoor space. Nothing in the show, however, captures the artist’s instinct for harrowing grace and sheer presence as successfully as Sunrise Overture. This figure has a Keatsian depth, describing the lost worlds of art, the varying media of the past—the marble of the Greek figures, the limbless elegance of Winged Victory, the discovery of forgotten work and this new breath he breathes into one of our most modern and inviolable materials, the stuff of industry and construction (Keats’ Grecian urn has its resonance in Qualben’s planters and finial vessels). Qualben has mastered his material and now he charges it to do his bidding. The next years promise the heady possibility that this artist will take the most difficult step in art: He will unlearn everything that rigorous and devoted study have taught him.

Jonathan Qualben’s show is up through the end of January at the Dana Gallery, 123 West Broadway.

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