Michelangelo allegedly defined great sculpture as that which “can roll down a hill without breaking.” Waitsfield artist John Matusz appears to have a similarly utilitarian approach. Every sculpture in “Industrial Strength,” his solo show at Stowe’s West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park, would surely survive a good tumble. While he is best known for his sculpture, Matusz’s exhibition includes sturdy 2D works as well — large-scale charcoal drawings, pastels and quick sketches.
Matusz won first prize in sculpture at the 2005 South End Art Hop for an untitled piece sited at the Department of Public Works. The 66-by-33-by-96-inch steel-and-granite work now stands in the West Branch Sculpture Park like an abstract sentinel. Its two triangular steel legs support a vertically aligned circle inset with granite squares. The integration of contrasting materials is a hallmark of Matusz’s sculpture.
The frontally oriented, indoor piece titled “When the Ripple Strikes the Stork’s Feet” is a 12-by-34-by-75-inch vertical abstraction. Matusz aggregated industrial steel and burnished stainless-steel shapes to construct the gangly form. It rises in a tight “V,” with the brightly burnished, reflective steel seemingly balanced above a matrix of circular holes and rising lines of brown-patina steel. A curious 6-inch disk of glass, with green and white ribbons embedded inside to form a shape like a flower, is attached to the right side of the piece.
In his artist statement, Matusz writes of his drawings, “I’m really trying to depict space and the distance between objects.” Artists primarily working in two dimensions might think of such distances as “negative space,” but sculptor Matusz recognizes space as a tangible “medium” displaced by three-dimensional forms. He experimented avidly with space and form in creating this body of work, and his drawings demonstrate that search.
Matusz began his career as a painter before focusing on sculpture in the mid-1980s. In a trio of horizontal 12-by-14-inch, mixed-media drawings, his appreciation of color is evident. Harmonies built around red and orange dominate all three. “Untitled (6.29.88)” recalls work by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and the pre-World War I Der Blaue Reiter group. In the spirit of those earlier artists, Matusz “sculpted” color as if it had a dimensional presence. He layered bold, slightly differentiated hues and introduced varied lines into the wholly abstract drawing.
“Order,” another of the mixed-media pieces, approaches deeper dimensionality — a harbinger of the artist’s work in sculpture. The drawing features a pyramid and an egg shape.
In two untitled drawings on black paper, both 27 by 40 inches, Matusz first cut into the picture plane with black pastel. Over those deepened spaces he put hollow squares and rectangles, and then filled them with colorful, curving, organic shapes. Matusz used primary colors (red, yellow, blue) and raw secondary colors (green, orange, purple) in the rounded forms, and highlighted them with white. Rhythmic white lines angled at 45 degrees also cross the boundaries of the colorful forms, enlivening the black background. Matusz’s three 51-by-77-inch charcoal works on paper — just black on white — are equally sculptural.
A group of sketches on lined notepaper and a Capital Supply Company pad demonstrate how Matusz sometimes utilizes drawing. On one sketch of interlocking cubes, rising like the curved neck of a brontosaurus, Matusz nonchalantly jotted, “This sculpture is cool!” That sketch turned into his 2007 “Variations of Cubes,” a 9.5-foot-tall work in stainless steel and granite. The granite part is the “head” of the form.
Matusz’s coherent, mature, vibrant aesthetic shows across media in his West Branch show. The old painter’s adage that “Sculpture is what you have to walk around to see the paintings” doesn’t hold up at this exhibition. Even when you look at Matusz’s pastels and other drawings, you’re still looking at sculpture.