Fish and Form: John Howard’s “An Aggregate”

By Leah Keller

Upon entering the SPAC Gallery, the visitor is immediately immersed in the strong scent of freshly chopped wood. John Howard’s An Aggregate may be constructed out of this freshly cut wood, but his two massive sculptures are far from the predictable wooden artwork that viewers might expect. The first of his installation pieces faces the entry and is easily visible as the viewer walks into the building. A large wooden wave constructed of hundreds of pieces of wood sits atop a platform of larger, staggered pieces of lumber. This wooden construction draws unsuspecting viewers in through its whimsical, swirling forms. The boards somehow appear to ascend, and the viewer can imagine them swirling up into the air. The wood is solid and still, but seemingly in motion.

Once the viewer walks up the steps and into the gallery space, the second of these sculptures, a large orb of the same materials, seems to jump out of the white-walled corner. This structure steals the show with its height, nearly touching the ceiling with the apex of its swirl. Although the visitor was first intrigued by the waist-high, wave-like structure, this massive sculpture provokes a stronger sense of child-like wonder and awe. The viewer is attracted to this chunky aggregation, which is surprisingly spherical considering that it is constructed out of flat wooden boards. This sculpture also rests on a wooden platform made of thick, raw planks that extend into the viewer’s walking space.

The orb is large enough for a full-grown person to stand inside. The viewer is likely to be compelled to step into this otherworldly, swirling object, but the invasive, jagged platform causes an unwelcoming effect. Instead, the visitor is led to the left side of the sphere by the diagonal slant of the swirl, which insistently points in a leftward direction. As the viewer walks around the backside of the piece, the individual boards become more evident, as they seem jut out from the unnatural curve that they have been forced into. The raw, fleshy tones of the wood remind the viewer of the organic materials used in making this transcendent form. Most of the wood is light in color with the exception of darker tan or brown boards appearing at random. As the viewer circles the sculpture and returns to the front, he realizes that the top of the swirl suspended in the air is mostly dark shades of brown, with some boards that are almost black. This gradient effect exaggerates the upward motion generated by the curvature and the strong diagonal lines of the sculpture.

At this point, the idea of standing inside the orb becomes more and more irresistible. The viewer may feel awkward stepping onto the platform and ducking under the orb’s extending arm, but the experience is well worth it. The center of the orb possesses a magical sense of weightlessness; the motion of the sculpture comes alive in the eye of the orb. The viewer will feel consumed by the swirling, swimming boards, and feel almost as if she is ascending into the air. This effect exemplifies Howard’s intentions in creating An Aggregate. The visitor will likely notice the guestbook and artist’s statement well after discovering both sculptures, but this information will complete the experience. Howard, inspired by the selflessness of herrings, aimed to produce an artwork that resembled the beauty found in the community and dependence of small fish living in schools.

Although the average viewer may not associate wooden boards with an animal, the shapes and movement created by the boards remarkably resemble the forms created by hundreds of small, swiftly swimming fish. These paradoxical structures effectively combine the weightlessness of floating with the solidity of wood. The dark, heavy platforms ground these otherwise ascending structures. However, positioning the sculptures on wooden bases is better than standing them on the even darker, solid cement floor. With more time, resources, and the use of a truly transformable gallery space, this show could be more effective, allowing its whimsicality to reach new heights. An Aggregate shows Howard’s pleasantly unconventional artistic style, as well as his promising potential as an artist.

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