The stone glows like alabaster channeled by waterfalls of glass. On an afternoon bright enough to be summer, sculptor Ron Mehlman has come to Chesterwood at the opening of his solo show, to talk with guest curator Michele Cohen.
They first met 40 years ago in Brooklyn, she says to the gathering on the lawn. She was writing a book then on outdoor sculpture in New York, and she saw his Water Trilogy in a vest pocket park on 51st Street. The work caught her with its contrasts — hard as granite, lithe as glass and light. His sculpture holds a balance for her that gives this show its name, Finding the Center.
And Mehlman seemed to echo her as he talked about a core idea in his works — the openings in them. A figure standing upright may seem to have one solid shape, he said, but lift an arm, lean weight on a hip, and the body moves into space, and those wells and hollow become part of the work — the air becomes part of the work as much as the stone.
“I try to encompass as much of the outside as possible,” he said.
In his early years in New York, he began be working in wood, shaping his pieces by what he carved away. He began with what he had to hand, he said. Today, though he keeps a foothold here, he often lives and works in Pietrasanta, Italy, a place known for its stone and its stone workers.
In his work here in Daniel Chester French’s gardens, Mehlman is shaping marble, onyx, rosso rubino (red porphyry) — cut slender enough for the light to shine through. …
He tells us that working with these materials changed his practice widely — partly because he finds them varied in their colors, textures and strength, and intensely beautful — and partly because they encourage different ways of working. In his early years, when he was sourcing logs from Woodstock, N.Y., he worked with what he could find.
He would begin with a solid block, imagine a form and cut away the wood to find it. And if the wood surprised him, if he made a mistake, or the design in his mind changed in the progress of the work, he could adapt.
Stone has a different temper. He still begins a new work the same way, he said, sitting at his desk with pencil and paper. But when he works with marble, he has less room to improvise. He adapts to the rock. Rather than paring away, he shapes and adds and fits together … he and Cohen describe the process and the work as more like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle.
Sometimes he even paints the marble, says, laughing at the reaction of the crowd and miming exaggerated surprise. Classical Greek sculptures were always painted, he reminds us, recalling the Elgin marble at the parthenon. But at other times he emphasizes the natural veins and hues of the stone.
And as he describes his working rhythm, something viseral surfaces at moments in his relationship with metamorphic rock. He describes the weight of an 800-pound sculpture — and the force that can snap a sheet of stone half an inch thick. When he describes his studio on a summer night, he gives a clear flash of a day and a time, and the tangible feel of his working life — in Pietrasanta, in a medieval town in Tuscany, he is standing outside his studio, looking around at the shapes he imagines. He is watching a thunderstorm come up the valley, and the wind is strong enough to lift a stone slab like a kite.
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