John Grade, Core, wood and resin, 41 x 43 x 27 in. Courtesy Davidson Galleries.

John Grade makes simple forms with elaborate, tactile surfaces. His Davidson Galleries exhibition, After the Wawona, serves as a transition from an intense period of working on a grand scale, using material—both physical and metaphorical—from the now-defunct 1897 schooner. The artist’s acclaimed 65-foot-tall sculpture, Wawona, a centerpiece of the new Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), was the starting point for this show. But here in small, more intimate pieces, Grade seems to be loosening his psyche from the sea-going imagery of the past several years, preparing to cast off.

The towering sculpture Grade created for MOHAI references both the ship and the trees that built it. Those old growth trees were also the vessel’s raison d’etre. Until 1913, the Wawonacarried lumber from Northwest ports to California. 

John Grade, Perch, Douglas fir from the Wawona Schooner, 9.5 x 19.5 x 15 in. Courtesy Davidson Galleries.

At Davidson, Grade (pronounced GRAH-dee) doesn’t dwell any longer on the working vessel, but rather its demise. The gentle curves of these abstract sculptures suggest fragments of hull become bits of driftwood, studded with barnacles and limpets—an old boat’s afterlife. Perch, intricately carved from Douglas fir salvaged from the historic fishing schooner Wawona, is split in two curved parts and encrusted with those groping tentacles. It’s permeable, as if the original structure has decayed and only a ghost remains. As always, Grade’s materials are rich in surface appeal as well as connotation. The swooping arc of Core, an exquisite joinery of little bits of oyster-colored wood and translucent resin, allows light to drift through: a jellyfish unfurled. His diminutive 6.5-by-8-by-7-inch Fit of cast iron, recalls the metal fittings of the Wawona, while its shape is sea-urchin prickly and split apart.

The strength of Grade’s work is multifaceted: The form, surface treatment, color, materials and workmanship of each piece feeds its metaphoric content. The artist demonstrates why abstraction can be far more powerful than literal depictions. He doesn’t leave us with a picture in mind of a certain ship, but with a sense of what that vessel was about, an emotional resonance of times past, something lost, and in a way, reborn.

John Grade: After the Wawona
Thru June 1, Davidson Galleries

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