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January 26 - March 7, 2009 at Sylvia White Gallery, Ventura

by Elenore Welles

Michael Todd, "Grand Shiva,"
1996, bronze, copper, 57 x 54 x 11".

Michael Todd, "Boogie Woogie
II," 2008, bronze, 20 x 24 x 15".

Michael Todd,
"MCT 0853,"
2008, ceramic, 14 x 15 x 2".

Michael Todd,
"MCT 0029,"
2008, ceramic, 19 x 11 x 3".

Artists depend on their relationship to the materials they work with to strengthen the bridge between their vision and the perception of the viewer. Michael Todd and David Middlebrook probe deeply into that expressive potential, devoted not only to the aesthetic effects of form and surface quality, but also to the inherent qualities of the materials themselves.
Todd’s reverence for materials became evident early in his career when working on wood constructions; he noted, “Wood had a carpenter’s humble soul.”
Known for iconic circles that blend geometric and organic shapes, he later turned to working with steel and bronze, welding and manipulating found objects to balance clear geometric form against playful and spontaneous openness. The limitless horizons of the negative spaces formed by the open areas increase the spatial depth. This effect is essential to the works’ constantly changing dynamic.
Todd sees his constructions as a way of transmitting inner meanings about existence, an impulse for spiritual expression made manifest in his vocabulary of circular and gestural forms. “Mia’s Dance X” and “Grand Shiva,” for instance, embody ideas embraced in Chinese calligraphy and Japanese Zen brush painting. Viewed by Todd as “echoes of the cosmos,” forms bounce from containment within or extension beyond the circles. The implication is of metaphysical fusion and harmony.

Many of the calligraphic elements in his works are reminiscent of the gestural expressions of David Smith. But the interplay of geometric shapes, planes and lines also owe a debt to Abstract Expressionism, with Arshile Gorky being of particular influence.
The way Todd approaches ceramics expand on these possibilities. In a series of wall reliefs, he continues the intricate play between organic shapes against geometric areas, only not reduced to linear essentials. He notes, “I need to connect with the flow of nature through my mind and into my hands as directly as possible.“ This is expressed in gestural movement that is improvisational, akin to jazz music or dance. In pieces that pose on stands he designed himself, these forms remain quirky. The malleability of the clay adds a sensuousness missing in the metal sculptures. By also applying colorful surface glazes, the contrast is taken an additional step.

Todd refers to the ceramics, the result of stretching, flattening and extruding clay, as three-dimensional paintings. Still, they retain calligraphic elements that are every bit as fluid as the cursive scribbles in the air that are so much a part of the metal sculptures, which one may fairly think of as three-dimensional drawings. However, although he also added geometric shapes that bring them closer to sculpture, the medium calls not only for differences in scale, but for  a new kind of immediacy and directness of expression as well. Consequently, the connection to the viewer is more intimate. The aesthetic pairing of media thus part ways, but do not fully break company.
In contrast to Todd, Middlebrook was a master of ceramics but found the material unstable and limiting. In 1983 he traveled to Northern Italy and discovered stone. He established a relationship with a studio in Pietrasanta, Italy, where he found availability to every stone in the world and a tradition in stone technology. Ceramic-pigmented paint remains part of his repertoire for embellishment.
Middlebrook’s works range in size from 50-pound tabletop maquettes to 50-ton outdoor installations. In his latest works, he places objects in precarious balance, a reflection of concern for the unintentional consequences of environmental destruction. By duplicating delicate materials such as foam or fabric in bronze or stone, he emphasizes the fragile balance between natural and man-made objects. It’s a complex tension, and it is at the heart of Middlebrook’s aesthetic. In “Squish,” for instance, he demonstrates the conjunction between the permanent and the ephemeral. Basalt is carved into a cone shape and balanced atop a bronze evocation of foam rubber.
Middlebrook enjoys those visual dichotomies and is a master at creating the illusion that materials can do extraordinary things. An example is “Rock and Tarp,” where a bronze rock balances on a cast aluminum duplicate of draped fabric. A blue and gold ceramic glaze emphasizes the beauty and sensuousness of the ersatz fabric. Reduced to their purest forms, the objects are resonant with the incongruous illusion that a lightweight material can hold up a heavy stone. 
Although Middlebrook would like the underlying connotations in his works to inspire moralistic thoughts, his concern with how the aesthetics connect with the viewer is paramount. Indeed, didactic elements remain obscured by his artistry and playfulness.
Todd and Middlebrook both draw aesthetic purpose directly from the technical possibilities of their chosen materials. They share, as well, a commitment to environmental concerns and the view that art can be a means to connect with and transmit the expressive power of nature.

David Middlebrook, "Squish," 2007,
bronze, carved basalt, 26 x 20 x 19".

David Middlebrook, "What Goes Around,"
2004, black granite, bronze, 72 x 24 x 24".

David Middlebrook, "Big Boyo," 2007,
bronze, aluminum, 26' x 24' x 18".

David Middlebrook, "Rock and Tarp,"
bronze, aluminum, 72 x 36 x 18".