'Before Words' we see, we feel

BRATTLEBORO — The white walls and strategically placed track lighting at Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts provide a dramatic setting for Torin Porter's exhibit of the dark, steel sculptures now on view until June 18. Porter explained that he titled his exhibit "Before Words" because our senses take in his sculptures through sight and sense of touch before we find the words to describe them. "It's really just the idea that words are a valuable tool, but sometimes they are overvalued. When we look at art, we feel like we have to put it into words, we think we understand. We don't draw after reading, but we talk with words after seeing art. When not having words, we are really connecting with, and exploring the fullness of it."

Our senses are how we really know the world, the weight, the texture, how it is viewed from all sides. "That," said Porter, "is part of what I like about sculptures. You can touch and feel, they are meant to be handled."

Porter started working in steel in 1992 during his senior fellowship at Dartmouth. "I've always liked to do art, and when I came across working with steel with an Oxy-Acetylene torch I found a material that worked for me." His first projects were all about creating movement for touching and handling but found those sculptures to be too sloppy. Now his pieces are more integrated, the movement comes from moving around the sculpture to view it, however, there are still some sculptures that have moving parts, like balls hanging from the tree, or smaller pieces accompanying a larger one to tell the story. Porter's object is to make the sculpture more about what the viewer brings to it.

One of his earlier pieces, called "Sewn Shirt," is distinctly different from the rest. It isn't welded but rather held together by metal stitching, teasing the senses at the possibility of wiggling the parts. As a shirt, Porter referred to it as "an extension of your skin," suggesting another partnership with the sense of touch. But most of his pieces are humans in different scenarios. The aesthetics make the emotions come through, exaggerated body parts tell his story. Each one has a moment in time that it tells.

There is usually a human element in most of his pieces. According to Porter, it gives people a way into it in one's imagination. Elongated figures, emotional expressions show how it feels like to have a body, and making the best of it. Hands are big, hands have a lot of nerve endings, showing the sense of touch, which is who we are.

Walking around the exhibit as different displays grab attention Porter's theory of combining two things together to get something different is evident. It tells another story. If there is more than one thing going on, it prolongs the viewer's engagement with it, which is what sculptures are all about.

One of the larger pieces displayed on a pedestal is a bird. At first glance it appears to be a crow, or a raven, or perhaps it's a seagull, but the story told here is the gathering of junk hanging from its beak and the excitement of embracing things unknown. "I think when two things are together it sets up a dialog or a conflict," he said. Many of the pieces portray our relationship with animals and how we care for them. Outstretched arms and oversized hands protectively surround a flock of sheep, a rearing horse and trainer piece shows two different emotions and the conflict that can arise. The piece chosen for the promotional poster, Oologist, 2017, depicts gentle and tentative handling of the very young — or an egg.

"Mitchell Gallery has done a great job placing them at the right height," he said, "It let's you enter the world of the sculpture." The shadows from the track lighting another dimension.

He gets his inspiration from looking at art, over time acquiring a vocabulary of ideas to try. He usually works from a sketch, but sometimes the sculpture takes a different direction. He works at a bunch at a time, then lets them sit to come back to at a later time when he may have a different feeling than the first pass at it. His latest idea was inspired when watching his 5-1/2-year-old drawing. "She was just going with it and made a rabbit. Lines showing the leg, and I thought, wouldn't it be fun to make a sculpture from her drawings!"

As a viewer, when gazing at his work, one sees it is clearly a talent combined with skill not easily attained, but he is humble about his abilities, only admitting to experience allowing him to know the limits. This exhibit is just a small sample of his talents. He also does wood carvings, colored sculptures, and did an outdoor installation to create an interactive experience, or an encounter, as he described it.

But the artwork in this exhibit seems to be his favorite. "I like working with steel — there's no fudging around — the edge is where it is. It is fleeting, capturing it in the steel."

Porter's sculptures have been exhibited in New England galleries, in New York City, and in public spaces. His interactive sculpture installations have been featured at many Phish festivals. Growing up, he spent his summers with the Bread and Puppet Theater, and later performed with the MOMIX dance company and the rock band Jane's Addiction. Porter was selected to attend several Vermont Week artist residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, and has taught sculpture classes at The Carving Studio. Porter received his B.A in Studio Art from Dartmouth College and lives in northern Vermont.

"Before Words" will continue to be on view at Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts through June 18. The gallery is located at 183 Main St., Brattleboro and is open Wednesday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information, call 802-251-8290, or visit mitchellgiddingsfinearts.com.

Cicely M. Eastman may be reached at 802-254-2311, est. 261.


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