Kat Murrell

Out of the forest, into the furnace at Vanguard

Bernard J. Robert's posthumous retrospective at Vanguard Gallery and Foundry: Mr. Natural amid molten metal.

By - Nov 29th, 2012 10:56 am
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Bronze and wood sculptures by Bernard J. Roberts are on view in Out of the Forest, Into the Furnace. Photo courtesy of Vanguard Sculpture Services, Ltd.

Vanguard Sculpture Services is tucked away amid gritty factories and warehouses in a neighborhood on the 30th Street Industrial Corridor. The locale seems more home to heavy machinery than delicate aesthetics. Ah, but a good deal of brawn figures in the making of art, particularly in the casting of bronze sculpture — Vanguard’s specialty, carried out in their expansive shop with high ceilings and daylight filtered through clerestory windows. This workaday space takes up most of their building. But a gallery fills the front part, and a posthumous retrospective of sculpture by Bernard J. Roberts fills that gallery.

Roberts is described as a “sculptor, teacher, naturalist, and restorer of prairies.” Natural, organic motifs influenced his work. What is particularly interesting about his body of sculpture are the varied explorations in shapes and materials.

In largely abstract pieces, he explored possibilities in wood, at times through biomorphic, pierced sculptures reminiscent of Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore. The Ripple figures stand out as deliciously slim, wavy columns of wood, like wispy sentinels in one corner of the gallery. Their height and surfaces call to mind Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, albeit in slimmer and even more supple form. Other works combine wood with materials such as stones or (intriguingly), small copper bits with a green patina. They sprout like mechanical plant life.

Many of Roberts’ pieces have a subtle grandeur, but he is not always so serious. Wood branch sculptures with hearts, anniversary gifts Roberts made for his wife, are in the show. Other pieces feature raw, rough sticks — painted and arranged, to be sure, but the voice of nature still does much of the talking. Bowls and furniture are on view as well. One beautifully finished table sits low to the ground, held up by so many legs that it appears about to be carried away by an army of delighted Lilliputians.

Roberts had a strong, consistent feel for curvaceous shapes, and he worked with the grain of wood to show the inner beauty of trees to the greatest advantage. Given that his work is so much about natural materials, it may seem incongruous on display at a casting studio. But Roberts worked with Vanguard, and some of his bronze sculptures are present as well. His bronzes bring out new contours and surface treatments and new interpretations of form and patina. The translation works well and points out how different materials can subtly alter perception. The adept shaping of Roberts’ wood sculptures often appears effortless, as though they had miraculously grown that way. The bronze sculptures, with their powerful metal cascades and undulations, are beautiful and dominating, fiery products of alchemy, in contrast with the humble wood shaped by both the artist and mystical forces of nature.


Out of the Forest, Into the Furnace — Bernard J. Roberts Bronze & Wood Sculpture continues at Vanguard Sculpture Services, Ltd., through December 21, 2012. The gallery is located at 3374 W. Hopkins St.

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