After a decade making a name for himself in Brooklyn, sculptor Aaron Spangler returned to Minnesota with his wife and infant son. Settling a few miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi in a spit of a burg called Two Inlets (pop. 237), they aimed to keep things simple. That meant just adding electricity, running water and another room to the log studio he’d hand-built there years earlier.
That was five years ago, and, as it turned out, even Up North, Spangler and his family have never been very far off the grid. Since the move, his big carved-wood sculptures have been shown in New York, Houston, Berlin and Rotterdam and at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among other places. Simultaneously, the career of his wife, Amy Thielen, took off with the publication of her award-winning cookbook, “The New Midwestern Table,” and the success of her “Heartland Table” television show, now in its second season on the Food Network.
Now Spangler, 43, has a new series of woodcut prints at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis through Nov. 15. With their sophisticated mix of rustic and personal imagery, the prints have been selling briskly to private collectors and museums, including the Walker and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
The prints are not as dark, intense or political as his early lead-black sculptures, which bristled with bas-relief images of claustrophobic forests, primitive industrial sites, menacing tools and weapons of war. Chiseled from slabs of basswood procured at a sawmill where Spangler once worked, the brooding sculptures succeeded in “transforming a marginalized craft … into a conduit for the mythology of the Midwest,” said Artforum magazine.
Spangler said recently by phone, “In a way, when I was in New York, I was more tied to a rural perspective and rural politics because I was always longing for something that I didn’t have there. It’s like country western music, which was really created by people who had moved to cities and missed their roots and old life. Coming home definitely freed me from that.”
Three years in the making
He spent three years, off and on, working on the 10 Highpoint prints. The smallest is about 3 feet square; the three largest are roughly 9 feet tall by 4 feet wide.
At a glance, they look like big abstract jigsaw puzzles — jumbles of black-and-white stripes, zipper-ribbons, dots, gouges, squiggles, feathery marks — on gray backgrounds that resemble stained floorboards. Upon scrutiny, images appear — of body parts (hands, footprints, heads, outlined torsos); tools (levels, gouges, rakes, chisels, saw blades), and other stuff (chair arms, crosses, kitchen utensils, guns). The images overlap, fragment, fold and break apart. One print is a rusty brown; all the rest are black, white and gray.
Outlines of guns recur, but they are not intended as a statement about weapons, he said.
“It definitely comes from my own experience, but it’s kind of American life,” he said. “Guns are tools as well. They are very threatening, but there’s a pragmatic thing there, so I try not to cast too much judgment and to let them be like all the other tools. Likewise, a cross can be used or abused; it can be a metaphor for Christianity or mean different things. There are lines drawn, but they’re not always black and white.”
Some of the images are highly personal. The upside-down figure in “Waiting in Line,” camouflaged with leaves, vines and flowers, is an outline of Spangler’s own body. The pale, barely perceptible child outlined in “How Do I Say Goodbye” is Spangler and Thielen’s son, Hank. The title alludes in part to Spangler’s brother, who died in a 2000 plane crash at age 31.
“When something like that happens, you lose your shared memories,” Spangler said of his brother’s death.
No Luddites here
To produce the prints, Spangler carved the imagery into slabs of wood that he then hauled 200 miles to Highpoint, where master printer Cole Rogers and crew figured out how to transfer the images onto paper.
Because the wood was so rough, and some of Spangler’s lines and marks so delicate, the slabs couldn’t be inked and run through a regular Highpoint press. Doing so would have obliterated the fine lines and reduced many of the subtleties to muck. So the wood was slathered with ink in the usual way, and a sheet of paper laid over it. But then Spangler and the Highpoint staff carefully transferred the ink onto the paper by rubbing the back of the sheets with wooden spoons and little palm-sized pads.
Rogers also recommended that Spangler use a sturdy but tissue-thin Japanese paper handmade from fibers of the kozo shi shrub. As the paper absorbed the ink, the printers adjusted their pressure to create darker and lighter areas. The process was so labor-intensive that they produced just eight prints of most images, and only three each of the biggest ones.
The series’ title, “Luddite,” is a droll reference to the old-fashioned handiwork involved. Historically, the term refers to anti-technology protests by English weavers displaced by new machinery in the 19th century, but it has expanded to mean general opposition to modernity and technology. It is not, Spangler insists, a disparaging allusion to printmaking nor to his North Woods neighbors.
“Ours was a sort of Luddite life here at first, not by choice but because we couldn’t afford anything else,” Spangler said. “But it’s an open-ended title that refers to all that stuff.
“I probably know more Luddites living in Brooklyn than I do here,” he added with a chuckle.