Mel Kendrick gets to the 'core' of sculpting with exhibit

by Alex Rich | 1/18/02 6:00am

Not many people can look at a rotted tree trunk and sense its potential for artistic expression. Not everyone is Mel Kendrick.

In the Hood Museum of Art's new exhibition, "Mel Kendrick: Core Samples," Kendrick, a contemporary sculptor, presents nine of his sculptures, created over the past two years. In his "core samples," he elicits the idea that there is something inherently sculptural about trees.

For Kendrick, "junk wood," salvaged from a New Jersey tree yard, becomes a muse for his sculptural endeavors.

"I view the tree as almost a found object," Kendrick said.

He is enticed by the sculptural value of weathered bark and eroded knolls. He is drawn by the singleness of each tree's three-dimensional form as it pertains to the aspects of the tree's inner core and shell. The fact that these pieces were once trees is a secondary, though essential part of his work.

Kendrick has often worked with wood throughout his 30-year career as a sculptor. Only recently has he chosen to retain the original tree form in his art, almost as a nod to the sculptural process that exists all around us.

Kendrick's works are invested in this idea of the sculptural process. He wants the artistic hand to be central in his work. In these core samples, he seamlessly intertwines the natural sculptural qualities of the trees with his own manipulation.

"He wants to make his working method obvious. The marks, the decisions he makes, are clear often in the surface of his sculptures. He is someone who does not cover up what he does," Kathy Hart, curator of Hood academic programming said.

The works in "Core Samples" seem to have found their earliest manifestation in Kendrick's 1995 sculpture "Black Trunk," included in the exhibition as a precursor to the core samples.

As in the sculptures that followed, this enormous blackened trunk retains its organic form, though it has been chopped into large, block-like sections, restacked, rejoined and punctured with geometric holes. The trunk is hollowed out, leaving only a thick outer shell.

Unlike "Black Trunk," though, the cores of theformer trees frequently become integral parts of Kendrick's later sculptures.

Often presented side by side, the outer shell and the core necessarily mimic one another's shape. The subtle bends in the trunk and the projections of the branches obviously exist on both the interior and exterior layers of the tree.

"One piece is the internal architecture pulled out of the organic form," Kendrick said.

Kendrick does not simply core a tree and call it a finished sculpture. He wishes that the coring, which is only the beginning of a hands-on process, be apparent to viewers. In order to get into the core of the tree, Kendrick must section and cut apart the tree's outer shell.

"There is something very psychological about pulling the guts out of the tree and rebuilding it," Kendrick said.

When it comes to piecing this shell back together, Kendrick sutures it in ways that underline the fact that his work shies away from carpentry. For this reason, he uses plastic cable ties to inform his viewers of exactly what he has done.

Though he does not impress any interpretations of his work onto his viewers, Kendrick is aware of the inevitable connotations and symbolism of trees.

"There are natural associations with the body and with nature," Kendrick said.

Still, it is not these associations that serve as the driving force in Kendrick's sculptural work. He instead directs his attention to each individual piece of tree and the raw sculptural qualities ingrained in its form. In fact, sometimes it is the natural features of the trees that prompt Kendrick's future artistic embellishments.

Latching onto the aesthetic appeal of the naturally occurring holes in "Pipe Hole," Kendrick adds his own more geometric holes in later tree shells, such as "Black Plug." The natural rotting of the "junk wood" spawned this central concept of the hollow tree -- an idea that "struck me as very amusing," Kendrick said.

The juxtaposition of the inside and outside of the tree initiates an interesting dialogue about the relationships between the organic and the inorganic, the positive and the negative and the original and the fabricated.

Though the weathered shells of the trees suggest their former states in nature, they are not untouched by Kendrick's artistic hand. He has sliced the shells and reconstructed the pieces while trying to evoke his own role in the process of rebuilding each unique form.

The cores of the trees, however, read visually as man-made, artistic reinterpretations of the tree. They mimic the original form and fluidity of their shells, sometimes retaining hints of the weathered bark that once coated them. The cores and shells appear like interlocking puzzle pieces.

Of course, the duality of these sculptures -- the ideas associated with inside and outside -- can foster countless interpretations. Kendrick, though, concerns himself with the organic qualities of his salvaged parts, sensing their natural sculptural forms. Nonetheless, a viewer's individual understanding of this "junk wood" relies on the symbolism of the tree form. It is this universality that draws viewers to Kendrick's core samples.