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Roger Halligan’s new sculpture is an artistic wedge issue
CHATTANOOGA’S BIENNIAL SCULPTure Exhibition is back for its sixth show, placing seven new pieces of outdoor sculpture around the city in a temporary exhibit that will remain in place for 18 months. Chattanooga artist Roger Halligan has a piece in the show. It’s called “Wedged,” and its look is both new and neolithic.
Two separate pieces stand about eight feet tall, separated by a few inches and almost geometrically parallel to each other. Perpendicular cuts through each piece align, forming a north-south-east-west directional axis. Each piece is wedge shaped, and together they form a larger wedge. The space between the two is very regular, almost draftsmanlike, while the cuts through each piece are strongly curved and become narrower as they go deeper into the shapes, almost like they were cut into the material with a wedge-shaped blade. The tops of both pieces are irregular, like ax blades worn by years of use. Their surfaces are scratched and scrubbed, covered with a green bronze patina.
Halligan talked to me about his sculpture last week at its new home, while walkers and tourists passed by on the First Street pedestrian way between Market Street and the Walnut Street Bridge.
“Wedges are one of the earliest tools,” says Halligan. “They became axes. They became inclined planes, all sorts of things. And they’ve appeared and reappeared in my art over many years. These have kind of a tool-like look to them. There are major cuts in both of them that are identical. In fact, you can actually see through one and see the identical thing through the other. You get a kind of figurative look, too in that they become wedges.”
Although he has his own associations that arise from the abstract shapes, he says, “What other people want to associate with it is entirely up to them.”
For him, the wedges become the mountains surrounding Chattanooga, the cuts in the pieces are reminiscent of the city’s tunnels, and the space between the two pieces could easily be the river. And the wedge shape itself is compelling.
“I like the contradiction of what a wedge is,” he says. “It forces things apart but it also gets stuck in there, too. If you’ve ever split wood and didn’t quite make it through that one piece of wood, an hour later you’re still trying to get the wedge out of the wood.”
As we talked a few feet from the sculpture, a woman circled around it for a few minutes with her dog, then gave him big thumbs up. To me, this piece looks very different from his other recent sculptures I have seen, which are single uprights that combine rock-like shapes and painted surfaces.
“In some ways it is a departure, in some ways it’s touching back to earlier work,” he says. “When I got out of graduate school I was working in very minimal geometric shapes in painted, welded steel.”
After grad school he worked for many years at the North Carolina Zoo designing natural habitat exhibits. He left the zoo in 1992 to devote more time to his art.
“A lot of my work is reminiscent of standing stones I’ve seen in Scotland and Ireland and Wales,” he says. “I made one piece that was very tall and thin, and I asked myself what’s so important about this piece, because it really vibrated and really spoke to me. So I started looking around and I said ‘Where have I seen stuff like this?” And it was the neolithic standing stones.”
His work usually begins with a lot of drawing, followed by making small models. “Wedged” started out in drawings and model as wider and “stockier.” But that would have been a larger and more expensive piece, so he started manipulating the proportions in Photoshop.
“I pushed it in one way and pulled it in another and go ‘Oh, that looks pretty good,’” he says. “There’s old ways of doing it and new ways of doing it, and I use whatever I can.”
His sculptures are always about establishing place.
“Once you take one and you put it there, then you have to ask why is it there, what does it mean,” he says. “When you look at the cuts, you’ve got a north-south-east-west on the sculpture. So it's very much an ‘x’ and it's ‘This is the place.’ All my sculpture has something to do with that.”
The Sixth Biennial Sculpture Exhibition, which will continue through Fall 2015, includes three pieces along the First Street corridor next to the Walnut Street Bridge, two in Renaissance Park, and one each on the Chattanooga Green near the Aquarium and at the south end of Veteran’s Bridge.