The Arts
May 9-15, 2007

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Gerald Walburg sculpture

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Buckle up: Gerald Walburg's work can be seen on the SJSU campus.

Steel Away

Sculptural experiments of Gerald Walburg show the power of surface and structure at SJSU's Thompson Gallery

By Michael S. Gant

PITY THE sculptor who takes on a public commission. Lean to the right (hello, Thomas Fallon), and protesters fill the streets with historical grievances. Lean to the left—vide Quetzacoatl—and another chorus complains loudly. Abstraction doesn't quiet the grousers either. In 1977, Gerald Walburg, a sculptor and teacher at CSU Sacramento, won a competition to create a monumental sculpture for the entrance to the K Street Mall. Although composed of five delicately balanced nonfigural steel elements, the sculpture, known as Indo Arch, ignited the proverbial fire-storm of protest from newspapers, politicians and cranky citizens.

Some critics, exercising their imaginations to the fullest, saw phallic symbolism run amok (to be fair, that's not a completely crazy interpretation). To add further insult, Walburg had to dip into his own pocket to the tune of $7,000 to complete the project. The last laugh took a while, but today the piece is used to promote downtown Sacto to tourists.

Director Jo Farb Hernández relates the story in her extensive coffee-table catalog for the current retrospective of Walburg's work at SJSU's Thompson Art Gallery. Now 71 and retired from teaching at CSU Sacramento for just two years, the native Californian came to his art career by way of a practical apprenticeship in industrial metalwork, printing and surveying in the Bay Area. His studies at UC-Davis in the early '60s brought him into the orbit of experimental ceramacists identified with Robert Arneson. Some of that influence still echoes in his recent glazed stoneware pieces—colored forms that look like human organs polished to a high gloss and given odd lip-shaped incisions.

After playing with some colorful, funky clay pieces, Walburg gravitated to more austere materials, including chrome-plated steel and Plexiglas. One example in the show, an untitled work from 1965, rises from a swooping base to a shiny bill-like curve that ends in a Plexiglass fillip given a hint of color by strips of orange plastic that catch the light.

Walburg didn't hit his stride until he started making large steel sculptures. Outdoor pieces like Opposing Soft Loops (illustrated in the show with one of the artist's delicate and evocative preliminary watercolor sketches) honor the directness of the material with unadorned finishes but also trick the eye a little with flowing curves and suspended arcs that seem to cheat gravity.

A prime example, Opposing Very Soft Loops on a Base, can be seen outside on the promenade at SJSU. Something like a giant's belt buckle, it consists of two backward-facing down-turning loops that manage to be stiff and droopy at the same time. The surface reflects years of exposure to the elements, with rivulets of rainwater corrosion and even a patch of some mud-dauber insect's home clinging high up out of reach.

Walburg's best works involve combinations of round-ended columns, zigzagging tubes, bolster-shaped lozenges and a sensuously bulging form that hovers somewhere between a heart and an inflated artist's palette without the thumb hole. Through precise welds, Walburg creates stacked arrangements that cling together in surprising patterns that work at varying scales.

Iauna, a smallish copper piece from 1983, rests on a simple horizontal base with beveled edges. A thick column with a short right–angle cap is balanced by three stair-stepping rods; they support another horizontal volume and a sideways heart form. The copper glows with a lovely dark patina like polished teak.

In Sibling no. 1 (2000), another bronze, a couple of elongated ellipsoids and three thick rods form a bowed armature on which rests another heart, turned at a rakish angle. The surface has a mottled variegated color like mineral specimens. As is often the case in Walburg's sculptures, the elements form an open frame through which to see the world as well as the work.

Gerald Walburg: Looking, Thinking, Making runs through May 18 at the Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery, School of Art and Design, San Jose State University. (408.924.4723)

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