Washington sculptor Peter Charles fuses things, binds materials, joins ideas, blends and confounds time. He muddles the Stone Age with the machine age, the contrived with the natural, Euclid with sinew, icon with illusion.
And the results can be startling or whimsical or puzzling, as is apparent in his latest local showing, which continues at the Baumgartner Galleries on R Street through Saturday.
The focus of the 19-piece exhibition is Charles' continuing fascination with the relationship between "art object" -- any valued item presented for viewing -- and the means of its display -- support, shelf, stand, pedestal. In Charles' constructions it is the pedestal, the presentation device, in fluid fusion with the generic "display object," that becomes the artwork.
"Tone Poem," for example, is a slender, eight-foot-tall composition of a roughly burnished, three-sided steel vessel (the "art object") atop a rectangular wood column that is itself slotted into another low wood pedestal.
Emerging casually from the mouth of the vessel is a brightly lacquered red-and-black stick, creating, overall, a totemic effect of which the "art object" is merely one element. The stick might even be taken for a continuation of the wooden base through the conduit of the steel vessel.
"Black Vessel With Crossed Leaves," his latest formulation of the concept, is clean, sharp blue-black steelwork throughout, with an "art vessel" shaped like an inverted Japanese lantern crowning an open-frame stand. The vessel holds what appear to be two blades of reed grass whose long stems stab through the base of the vessel to join with the framework pedestal.
Charles' pedestal fixation is no mere creative conceit. He comes by it organically from a boy's-eye view. He was born in Washington to an art-loving mother who took him to the National Gallery every week. As he grew, he was deemed the family docent for out-of-town relatives and friends, and led countless tours through the Smithsonian and other local museums.
Visitor after visitor. Case after case of artifacts. Art object after art object. Pedestal after pedestal. All from the vantage point of a child five feet tall. The experience filled him with wonder about ancient cultures and creations and about where and how all this fit in with the world evolving around him.
Of the course of sculpture today, he says, "You have to keep in mind the entire history of art," and to "understand that what you see now is a response to it." His own art he describes as "a personal investigation for myself," and he prefers to work it out in series "so that I can see my thoughts in as many ways as I can and refine them."
What he often ends up with is a work with layers of complexity as rich as an exquisite French pastry. Beneath the bold visual presentation is an underlying organization of materials, technique, proportion, color and history. "I want my art to be a visual puzzle," he says.
Each of his sculptures, he has said, "is a gesture conveying a physical sense of parts drawn together and expressive of the act of joining. It is a carefully adjusted total visual tension rather than brute force which integrates the disparate elements -- the rough wooden parts and smooth steel components. Forms are coaxed together. Nothing is crushed. Often it seems as though the parts have surrendered gradually to an overwhelming force. The bound form resists the constraining ties. An equilibrium is achieved."
One Charles piece that stands out as an exemplar of that ideal, "Blue Construction With Stone," is not in the current show.
It takes the form of a blue-steel I-beam standing on end with the seeming support of a fragile though heavily bolted wooden frame, which has for its base a single smooth stone.
Another such piece, "Walnut Flag," a simpler expression of Charles' concept of joinery, is part of the exhibition.
At a glance, it's a weathered board stuck rigid to the top of a tall metal rod and hanging parallel to it. Except it's not quite parallel. Separating the lower end of the board from the eight-foot-high steel shaft and nudging it out a bit is a polished stone the size of a plover's egg. The board is bent a little that way, anyway, and it's not really weathered; it's been scored and sawn and lacquered. Holding it together at top and pedestal is a modern material applied in an ancient manner -- steel twist ties.
The effect is of a chivalric gonfalon stirring gently in a warm medieval wind.
Whatever the material, tying is Charles' preferred way of joinery, and a number of compositions on view at the Baumgartner explore variations of the method.
"Tying things together is the most direct way of joining," he once wrote.
"The physicality of the twisted-tie form brings to mind the image of the hand in direct manipulation of the material. In the history of joinery, tying is primitive and unsophisticated, yet in everyday experience it is direct, forthright and convenient. Its very directness produces the mimetic effect which serves to involve the viewer."
Another of Charles' abiding interests, early American furniture, appears to be reflected in a construction titled "Her Legs," a particularly sinuous shaping that could only be feminine.
There is the generic art object -- again an open steel receptacle -- but in this case it adorns a walnut pedestal fitted with slim, attenuated, serpentine supports that recall great-grandmother's end table and a Folies Berge`re finale all at once.
Gallery owner Manfred Baumgartner says he especially likes the classical element in Charles' work -- the way "he conveys timeless representation, perfectly executed." A football coach might say he makes it look easy.
In simpler terms still, Charles says he strives merely to create works that are "beautiful to think about and to look at."
"I am a visual artist," he says. "I want my art to be accessible in a living environment and alive in person ..."