Take out the protractor and grab a geometry textbook, because the more time you spend with Kevin O’Toole’s intriguing wooden sculptures, the more you will want to decipher the complex and intricate relationships within and amongst the forms. At first glance, the viewer is presented with an array of simple, minimalist shapes, some wall-mounted, others on pedestals, perhaps influenced by Anne Truitt or Donald Judd. If Minimalism is not your forte, it might be easy to walk away at this point, but O’Toole lures you in to take a closer look at the unusual textures on the wood. At that point, he’s got you: as soon as you’re seduced by the surface treatments, the intricacy and complexity of the sculptures starts to become evident, and you feel as though you can’t leave until you’ve “solved” his artwork.
The artist’s solo exhibition, “The Shape of Things to Come,” is on display in the Bellowe Family Gallery of Strohl Art Center through Sunday.
O’Toole lives and works in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he completed his MFA in 1978 from Penn State University. Working with wood was at one time simply a matter of necessity, because the medium allowed him to construct objects without a foundry or casting facility. He would scale up clay models into laminated hardwood sculptures. Eventually he stopped relying on the clay models and instead graphed the plans for the designs. Although he doesn’t think of himself as a woodworker, he has said in an artist statement that he “rarely thinks in terms of another material.”
The piece that stood out to me immediately was “396-16”; the works are numbered to suggest the serial nature of the forms. At only 18 inches high, it’s not on the large scale one expects from artworks concerned with Minimalism, but inspires a much more intimate and considered viewing. “396-16” is constructed of basswood with aluminum leaf and gesso. The top segment has a striated metallic sheen; the bottom has a thin layer of white gesso, which allows some of the wood to show through. From the front it appears to be a large two-tone rectangle with a curved top. It’s when you peer over it, or look at the side that it stops “making sense.” The front and back of the shape actually arc toward one another, meeting at one point, like a magical 3-D rectangle that doesn’t actually have sides. To make it even more perplexing, the top of the sculpture is an arc of its own, meeting at the same point of the other arcs, but transitioning across the top of the sculpture to form a wide curve; somehow, the bottom of the piece is flat. Once the complexity of the forms becomes evident, the exhibition develops a whole new life.
Take, for instance, “390-15,” a cherry and enamel wall piece. Two identically sized rectangles are placed above one another, divided horizontally by color. The top halves of each rectangle are treated to a hammered surface, and painted a matte brown; the bottom halves are wood grain. Each of the rectangles is then divided diagonally, with the same angle, but starting at different points. The diagonal “line” only exists because the thick wood has been carved away from the original block, gradually subtracted in a slight angle toward this line where they meet. Then, to add another layer of complication: the wood appears to have been divided into eight segments; but it becomes obvious that they are all now inverses of each other. I spent an inordinate amount of time studying the work, to try to determine which shapes within the form were identical and how O’Toole could possibly have planned such a perfect geometry puzzle “nightmare.”
“369-14” is a basswood and gesso wall piece that seems to defy logic. Divided in half horizontally, one side is the white gesso coating seen in “396-16,” and the other side remains wood grain. The white, left side, arcs out from the wall in a convex curve that, when seen from the side, is thicker on the bottom than the top. The right, wood side, with a concave curve, ends with a side view that is thicker on the top than the bottom; the entire piece looks to have been carved from one solid piece of veneered wood. Then the realization hits: If the two sides were cut apart, inverted, and placed on top of one another, they might come close to emulating the original block of wood from which the sculpture was carved.
Perhaps the work that best exemplifies O’Toole’s conceptual, mathematical minimalism is “401-16.” Striped like an Anne Truitt tower, but standing a modest 36 inches, this blue and walnut sculpture twists from top to bottom. But what is puzzling is the fact that the flat bottom and top are perfect rectangles, one rotated about 90 degrees from the other, and the curve up the column is a result of the gradual rotation from one rectangle to the other. To add more complexity, each of the four verticals is a perfect, straight line when seen from a distance. It is curious to try and hypothesize how the artist was able to craft this seemingly impossible shape. But, O’Toole has done just that: he has taken what seem like geometric impossibilities, and turned them into tangible, beautiful, sculptural forms.
Melissa Kuntz has written reviews for Art in America and the Pittsburgh City Paper while also maintaining a studio practice. She is currently professor of painting at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.