Elizabeth Berrien makes sculpture from tensile wire, crimping, twisting and winding silvery filaments around a central void. Her gossamer sculptures take the forms of living things — mostly animals and birds but also, increasingly, abstract natural forces. Berrien's wire constructions may repeat the shapes of waves or diatoms. Scale can shift: Whales and stags share the walls with screech owls and hummingbirds, while some of the most complex animal portraits here derive their impact from being executed at life size — Berrien's wonderfully willful and insubordinate cats, for instance, which preserve the feline capacity for quicksilver response coiled within them, even in repose.
Eureka-based Berrien has been sculpting in wire for nearly 50 years, exhibiting in fine art galleries and museums as well as completing commissions for a growing roster of international and corporate clients. Her monumental Pegasus graces the arrivals hall of the Louisville, Kentucky airport, suspended in midair. More recently, the artist has completed a set of 27-foot wire murals for the interior of a restaurant in Dubai, a "faux taxidermy" Cape buffalo head to hang over the new bar at a new nightspot in Chicago and an ibex portrait for a lodge in the French Alps.
While creatures from what Berrien calls her wire zoo are a perennial presence on the local scene, Humboldt viewers seldom get to see so many examples of the artist's work collected in one place. That alone is good reason to check out this exhibition at Westhaven Center for the Arts — it brings old and new artworks together, presenting an array that makes it possible to trace the artist's evolution from the 1960s through the recent past. The animal portraits that were the artist's first area of concentration continue to be a major presence. Recent years have also found the sculptor diversifying her approach by working in a more abstract vein, using wire to depict elemental forces.
Berrien told me that her relation to subject matter was "client-driven," an interesting and somewhat unusual perspective for a contemporary artist to adopt (though before the advent of modern markets, it was the default stance for the vast majority of artists worldwide). A sculptor who works in this way is a problem-solver whose commitment to the mastery of form necessarily supersedes attachment to content. It's an approach that has worked well for Berrien, yielding remarkable technical command.
As you walk around this exhibition you imagine the sculptor rising with enthusiasm to the challenges each subject represents, as a trout does to a fly. Berrien's can-do approach would seem to involve embracing each new morphological conundrum — horns, feathers, cilia — as a problem that can most certainly be rendered in wire. But how? Her solutions have become increasingly sophisticated and ingenious.
This show includes a couple of Berrien's earliest wire sculptures from the late 1960s and 1970s, which make for an intriguing contrast with more recent work. Back then, the wire animals that sprang from the artist's hand tended to be smaller and more laboriously constructed; the crimps in the single-guage wire were more visibly the product of calculation.
"It's easier than it used to be," Berrien said of her practice, alluding to the trove of muscle memory and practical know-how derived from decades of hard work and commitment to craft. As her handling of the medium became more intuitive and fluid, Berrien turned into a connoisseur of wire. These days, the type of wiring she selects for each sculpture influences the character of the finished piece in major ways. Recent sculptures use everything from wide-gauge wire that looks like ropy, bendable silver cables to gossamer filaments that must be handled with tweezers because of their fragility.
The limitations of wire as a sculptural medium function like a meter in poetry: They impose focus. Working in wire neutralizes color and surface incident, which frees the artist to occupy herself with form. The creatures that populate Berrien's wire zoo are immediately recognizable not because of the accuracy with which she has depicted their plumage or replicated the texture of their fur, but because of the way they move and hold their bodies. Her horses surge fluidly forward; her deer are animated by a single arc of nervous energy that sings from nose to tail. Many of these sculptures convey the gestalt of subjects' presence with great precision.
And yet no aspect of these forms is regular. All Berrien's works, from the most expansive to the most intimate, are woven and twisted by hand. The small irregularities that result from this manner of fabrication animate the line, giving it a kind of crackling intensity that lends itself well to depiction of a high-strung, living presence. This is essentially drawing in three dimensions. And tracing the evolution of Berrien's wiry lines is like watching the unfolding of thought in space.
The show Wire Wavelengths: Earth, Fire and Water will be on display at Westhaven Center for the Arts throughout March and April. Gallery hours are Friday through Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Contact the artist for a private showing at www.wirezoo.com.