… my brain scans space for variations in texture,light, dark, color, shape, volume and then assembles them categorically. I can’t remember a day this was not so. When I’m awake, I constantly reshape what I see into the figures that aren’t here yet. It’s all about the way things flow, and if they don’t flow dynamically, they get formed into a world where they do. — Harry Siter
In 1894, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious,” and “Education is an admirable thing. But … nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” It is good to remember, in the current artistic climate, with its over-emphasis on theory, that art is a subjective, imaginative response to life that provides its viewers as well as its makers a sensory and sensual experience compelling enough to survive the ups and downs of intellectual fashion.
The figurative work of Vallejo CA sculptor Harry Siter, masterfully merging surrealism and humor, is intensely individualistic, deriving from two postwar San Francisco Bay Area art movements known for their independent-mindedness: Bay Area Figuration, painting that applied Abstract Expressionism’s gestural freedom to the once-banned human figure (e.g., Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and David Park); and Funk, the Dadaist assemblage version of Beat writing (e.g., Robert Arneson, Bruce Conner, Jess and William T. Wiley). Siter grew up near Cleveland, but spent summers in New York, where his great-grandfather had worked as an operator on the Staten island Ferry, and his uncle as a photographer for the Ed Sullivan television show. As a child, SIter was admitted to the prestigious Willoughby School of Art, where he won awards and honed his skills, while discovering the disquieting metaphysical paintings of Giorgio di Chirico, with their statues, arcades and silent locomotives; the Surrealist paintings of René Magritte, visual conundrums; and the Pop humor of Claes Oldenbourg, whose absurdist sculpture of a gigantic rubber stamp in Cleveland became a model for Siter. Moving to the Bay Area in 1979, Siter found work in the ceramics, glass and fashion industries. Accepting a scholarship to the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1985, he studied with sculptor Dennis Leon, ceramist Viola Frey, and furniture designer Wendy Maruyama, all artists dedicated to exploring the interplay of material and self-expression. In a 1994 interview, Siter expressed his need to create: “Sculpture just always drove me crazy; three-dimensional objects just made me insane. I just had to let go and start making big things out of anything I could get my hands on.” For a 2009 one-man show, “An Avatar Collective,” he spoke of being inspired by “these inanimate objects we share the world and universe with… I attempted to recreate these forms into a new form. The tree becomes human, and human becomes tree. The rock takes its place in line to be recognized for its beauty and place in evolution, [as] it too shares the same carbon [that all terrestrial life does]. As the work developed it became clear that the materials represented different spirit worlds.” Siter’s figure sculptures in wood, roughed out with a chainsaw and finished with chisels, and generally nude, have a monumental weight and gravity somewhat reminiscent of the figures of Leonard Baskin, or perhaps Georg Baselitz, whether the pieces are large or small. They exude a powerful mythic or archetypal presence.
His figures combining wood and metal tend to be more elegant and elongated female figures in cocktail or party dresses bedecked with with high heels and incongruous heads: an endangered predatory bird’s in “Condor Rising,” and a powerfully carved flower (magnolia blossom?) in “Georgia On My Mind.”
(Art historians will remember Picasso’s 1946 femme-fleur portraits of the young Françoise Gilot and the photographed “floral woman” from the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, in her belted dress and arm-length gloves ,upon which perch Trafalgar Square pigeons, her head replaced by a bouquet.)
Siter’s imaginative, anti-hierarchical—and perhaps, beneath the humor, even subversive—mingling of images and materials characterizes the more recent works, large and small. “Hana” is a female figure whose palm-tree coiffure was inspired by windblown foliage in Maui; bearing her conscious, unconcerned head on one arm, she holds an oval-shaped mirror (the traditional symbol of vanity) in the other hand.
“Daisy” presents us with another dressed-to-kill young woman, exultant, arms upraised, her head a massively petaled wooden daisy. “Art is the most intense mode of individualism,” says Wilde, “that the world has known.” In an art world that seems paradoxically conformist in its programmatic subversiveness, and mandatory trespasses, it’s heartening to see work, admittedly traditional in medium and material, and drawing from an established modernist heritage, that dares to go its own way and grow, independently, following its own imperatives. Siter may have once joked about being one of San Francisco’s “best-kept secret” artists, but the strange, funny work speaks for itself and the word is getting out. Essay by DeWitt Cheng. Cheng is a freelance art writer who contributes to Art Ltd., Artillery, VisualArtSource, ArtVoices, Sculpture and East Bay Monthly; and Curator of Stanford Art Spaces.