On the campus of what was once downtown Chattanooga’s Tennessee Temple University, a group of recent college graduates founded a venture called VERSA Gallery in order to showcase local artists. Located at 1918 Union Avenue, this intimate studio’s most recent exhibit featured the work of the beloved previous Covenant professor, Raymond Padrón, alongside that of Joshua Shorey, for a show running from March 2-16.
Many Covenant art students remember Padrón’s input in their 2D and mixed media classes, and he now teaches sculpture at U.T.C. Padrón, who received his MFA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a highly conceptual artist who, in his artist’s statement for the show, describes his practice as “epistemology through craft.” Recently, I had the privilege to attend a critique of Padrón’s work along with several Covenant art students and friends of his; this article is the result of that time spent viewing Padrón’s work and discussing it with him.
The show included three sculptures and one photograph by Padrón, and one kinetic sculpture by Shorey titled “A Whole Steadiness.” Shorey’s work commands the center of the room, composed of upside down geometric mountains (based on geographic surveys of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin) suspended from the ceiling and mirrored below by mountains of salt, poured out of small holes at the mountain’s points. These five diverse pieces are unified by following a black and white color scheme, but Shorey’s angular, impersonal, almost futuristic piece stands in contrast to Padrón’s intimate, nostalgic ones.
“St. Roper” is a Roper brand work glove, scanned, and then 3D-printed in stark white plastic at the Chattanooga library. As a result, the glove is topographic upon close inspection, evoking fingerprints of those who might have worn such a glove, while also feeling cold and sterile. The glove Padrón scanned was a leather one, stained and dirty from use, and the tension between the original glove, and this stark and unwearable one is both disconcerting and intriguing. Padrón titled the piece “saint” in order to tap into the mythology accompanying sainthood and hopes that it evokes the ironically holy icon of a hardworking hero.
“Wolf,” the show’s only photograph, is located across from “St. Roper,” and from the other side of the room seems to be a picture of a paint can, taken from directly above. It is only when the viewer comes close, they realize it is a scan of a wedding ring, Padrón’s own, done with such detail that all the tiny nicks in the metal appear. In this piece, Padrón was exploring the wedding ring as a “flat symbol,” much like a heart emoji. It has a definite cultural meaning, and yet it is only a symbol, and there is so much within any marriage a wedding ring cannot tell.
The most intriguing of all the show’s pieces were Padrón’s final two: “Watch Cap” and “Ball Glove,” which were exactly what they are titled, only much larger than life at 31x24x2” and 37x30x2,” respectively. However, these pieces are flattened to a width which does not match their size. Made out of white oak – an extremely hard wood – Padrón estimates that over thirty-two hours went into each of these pieces from start to final sanding and staining. Each began with a photograph which was turned into an architectural plan before power tools were used to sculpt the final products. In order to achieve the remarkable black finish, steel wool was soaked in vinegar, leaching out the iron, and the resulting mixture was brushed onto the wood, leaving them looking almost burned, and yet still whole.
“Watch Cap” and “Ball Glove” are where Padrón’s preparatory explorations for the show are most evident. A theme throughout his work was the tension between our tendency to romanticize good old-fashioned labor and the human drive to make processes faster and easier. The wooden sculptures serve as an example. While the creation (and even conceptualization) of these pieces required physical involvement, the sanding needed to complete them was an unwelcome part of the process Padrón was eager to finish.
Moreover, standing between these emblems of the head and the hand, (the two necessities for an artist), viewers are filled with both nostalgia and grief. Padrón ascribes some of this tension to the pieces’ size: they are too large to represent just one person’s fond memories or to fit just one hand or head. Rather, their largeness makes them symbolic of their kind, lending the works an unfamiliar weight which combats the comfortable familiarity of baseball gloves and beanies.
VERSA has chosen an outstanding opening show which showcases Padrón’s skill in both conceptualizing and crafting artworks, and he has succeeded in meeting his goal of creating work drawing out the viewer’s experience for as long as possible, no light feat in his chosen medium. Rather than creating pieces assuming the immortality of sculpture, Padrón says he hopes to undermine and question the tradition of sculpture as a medium outliving the artist. As a result, his work invites questions not only of process, but also of what is lasting in this life and how memories can be preserved, if at all.
To see pictures from this show and to find information regarding future Versa Gallery shows, check out their website: www.versagallery.org. For more information on Raymond Padrón and Joshua Shorey, find them on Instagram @raypadron and @joshshorey.