Hugh Townley: Against the Grain

January 13 - March 22, 2009
East Gallery

Hugh Townley: Against the Grain highlights the career of one of the most original wood sculptors of the twentieth century, who spent the last eleven years of his life in Bethel, Vermont. His imaginative, often whimsical forms made from common and exotic varieties of wood communicate through a personal vocabulary drawn from nature, Native American cultures, and Eastern spiritualism. Familiar with the intrinsic characteristics of a wide variety of woods, Townley developed a painterly quality in his relief sculptures by juxtaposing variations in color, grain, and depth of relief, using a band saw or carving directly into the wood to create a play of light and shadow across the surface. His dedication to traditional techniques and natural materials was in direct opposition to the more industrial welded-metal construction that was popularized in the 1940s and 1950s by his American contemporaries.

Townley (1923-2008) grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, and attended the University of Wisconsin majoring in fine arts and cultural anthropology. In 1948, he went to Paris to study with the Russian émigré sculptor, Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), whose large-scale, hand-carved, wooden sculptures of attenuated figural forms were influenced by Cubism. Townley's work embodies the impact of this study and combines it with the biomorphic abstractions associated with Surrealism, as well as the primordial and mythic imagery of Abstract Expressionism. Although Townley draws on these influences, his work is unique in combining geometric and organic forms, ruggedness and elegance, sly wit and serious undertones, as well as elements of figuration and abstraction. The resulting array of juxtaposition, superimposition, and integration of form in his work runs against the grain of any established aesthetic, inviting the viewer to focus on the tension and balance of Townley's singular vision.