I’ve been unintentionally avoiding Gallery Nord, and for too long. For one thing, it’s a humdinger of a building, designed by the late Allison Boyd Peery (1924-2005), a pioneer on the male-dominated landscape of South Texas architecture, associate of the mighty O’Neil Ford, and one of the primary architects — for better or worse — of the ’68 HemisFair grounds. Ford’s influence is felt strongly throughout the structure of Gallery Nord, from the welcoming interior art space — open and airy and clean — to the building’s graceful exterior, a smooth red-brick split-level that comments on, and fits in well with the low-slung, postwar charm of Castle Hills.
In the small backyard of the gallery, a knee-depth water feature of baby-pool proportions and Hockney dreams sports the gurgliest of fountains — of the magma-geyser, rather than dancing-waters flow style. It’s tasteful, suburban-backyard-pool as metaphor, and within its sightline, are two masterful, handsome sculptures by Danville Chadbourne. The polished concrete floors and late-afternoon sun render everything glowy, and since I grew up in that neighborhood, the setting, materials, and swooping vintage-modern roofline made me feel nostalgic.
So did the busts of Dr. Pilyoung Shon, a well-known, oft-shown artist and retired professor living in Seoul, Korea, showing at Gallery Nord with his U.S.-based son, Byeongjun. Shon the senior is a master of intimate-scale busts with the psychological power of humanoid imagery combined with earthy, arts and crafts textures. The simplified, faceless mannequins are solid in construction but otherworldly in theme, crafted of heavy pottery or various cast metals, well-installed and somehow cuddly; the mother-and-child figure suggested by one rounded-and-smoothed sculpture would have felt right at home in a chic, progressively well-appointed family home of ca. 1979, nestled next to a bookshelf full of Didion, Roth, and García Márquez. When he goes the unsettling route, as in one head-only, snake-haired (or brained?) bust, the implied narrative reads as old-fashioned, nothing that mightn’t be addressed by Fahrenheit 451.
But I don’t mean to sound dismissive; these works are simply beautiful, and spending some afternoon time with them felt very healing, indeed. The same was true of Byeongjun, the son. Born in Korea, and educated in the UK and US, his resume is impressive as all git-out; he’s shown in London and New York, Seoul, and now, here. Like Chadbourne, the younger Shon displays a knack for illustrating human alienation from nature, combining natural materials (wood – mainly tree branches or slender, truncated trunks) and the man-made (plastics, celluloid, an IV bag of blood in a work as a photographic, rather than on-site, artifact). Byeongjun Shon’s stated aim, and a good one, is to “investigate people’s impact on nature.” This is materially evident in each piece, whether a mysterious red fabric mini-altar amid a seemingly perfect carpet circle of sea salt, or a section of floor dominated by individually-set branches mired in blocks, an installation which expands exponentially in the mind — how many trees go down? — while presenting an elegantly-proportioned miniaturized landscape. One sculpture, “Practicalized Restoration,” a sinuous fallen branch entwined with an (actual) blood-filled IV hanging bag, perhaps speaks loudest for its presence (a photograph of it is shown), evoking a Kubrickian sense of the uncanny with a polished presentation. While the works by father and son aren’t incendiary, they’re indisputably excellent. Art educators, collectors of good taste, and larger US institutions, take note.
Upstairs, though, in Gallery Nord’s loftlike mezzanine atop a rounded staircase, you’ll find the 2-D work of San Angelo-based John Mattson. Described in the artist statement as “cartoons of a soul unable to ignore the psychic distress inherent of our lives” … hell, I coulda gotten that. Fleshy funnel-like apparatuses, strongly suggestive of the squishier and harder-working bodily organs of a Dr. Seuss character from outer space, Mattson’s combination of the almost-uncomfortable combination of effluvia-giving “organs,” the snappy delineation of cartographic or owner’s-manualesque elements of dotted-line notation, and bright color pallette win you over at first glance. Slapstick funny, buoyant, and intimate, this is a work of a man enjoying himself. Paint, pastel, possibly gouache, and hand-made scribbling build up densely-worked surfaces without losing Mattson’s comic-graphic touch.
If you live in the just-outside-410 Northside, and you seek a lovely and meditative experience getting all up on, if maybe not the most cutting-edge, but undeniably well-made contemporary art (no kidding) this lovely gallery provides a deeply satisfying experience. •
Pilyoung Shon, Byeongjun Shon and John Matson
Through Oct 6
2009 NW Military Hwy