Bates Wilson left an acting career to become a sculptor, but he never got rid of his sense of drama. The artist is known for dynamic sculptures created out of scrap metal, old machine parts, pieces of wood and artistic ambition. He will be at Vail International Gallery Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. - just look for the metallic tangle of plane and fish in the gallery's front window.
Wilson has become a highly collected artist with an inimitable style. Working with pieces and parts of discarded road signs/industrial machines/anything else that catches his fancy, he creates fluid sculptures that seem caught in the act of moving, despite the fact that they're often suspended from the ceiling or mounted to the wall. They are, for the most part, large works that demand their own place and space. They also demand attention.
"I don't like to send something out that's too clean," said the artist, speaking from his studio in Santa Fe, N.M. "I've always been drawn to things that have been around for a long time, that are well used and worn in that way and repaired and fixed. Things that have a lot of life, rather than something that's purchased and new."
Recently, he's been creating sculptures around various cultural icons.
"What I like to do is create something in the context of the iconic thing, and bring something new to it, to the dialogue," he said. "I want to make things that people can think about and draw their own conclusions to."
Guns are one such icon that he's exploring in his work. The series is meant to reflect society's attraction and repulsion to guns, as well as add to the current conversation about gun control. They are not meant to be the final word reflecting his place in the debate.
"You don't want to lead people into a point of view; you want them to make their own mind up," Wilson said.
One of the pieces in the series will be in Vail. It's created on the shape and structure of a peace sign, with a beautifully wrought "assault rifle" making up the center lines. Surrounded by 20 stars - a reference to the children who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. - the work manages to be both sensual and pop-like. Beauty, destruction, hunger, sadness... it inspires a variety of responses.
"It won't be for sale now, and it might not ever be for sale," said Marc LeVarn, gallery co-owner. "I don't want it to disappear. I want people to be able to see it."
LeVarn and his business partner, Patrick Cassidy, are seeking out curators of various museum collections in the hopes of placing the sculpture somewhere so the general public will have access to it.
"Hopefully the piece is a catalyst of the whole situation," Wilson said. "People can look at it and see what they're attracted to and repelled by."
How does Wilson think the gun pieces will go over with his current collectors who seek out his fish and planes and surfboards?
"You need to find things that inspire you," he explained. "Stuff that stimulates the imagination and the intellect to do something greater. You have to keep growing. The work can't be inspired if you keep making the same thing - it loses that attraction of what brought people to the work in the first place. You can't look at it as a product that's just to be sold. Hopefully, the audience's taste will grow along with the artist's."
Organic creatures in an inorganic world
That drive is nothing new for Wilson, whose sculptures have always been thoughtful and provocative. Working with materials that have outlived their original purpose, there's an almost built-in commentary on lifestyle, value and a disposable world.
Take the fish sculptures for which he's so well known. Certainly they delight the eye. They seem plucked mid-swim from the ocean.
"The fish is something that is based on the organic and inorganic," he said. "There's attraction and a certain level of discomfort as well. If you look at the idea of these fish, these organic creatures running on - made of - machinery... They're not in a natural environment."
Instead of rising out of beautiful waters, blue and pristine, these fish have more of a post-apocalyptic feel. They're organic creatures in an inorganic world.
"I want to make things that aren't perfect, that have an element of decay as well as resurrection," Wilson said. "It's got a few layers that you can work with, and hopefully it can have a little more of a dialogue than something that is only aesthetically attractive."
Don't be fooled by the comment, though. Aesthetics are everything. Or, at least, they are the foundation of each piece of art he creates.
"Everything I make I want it to look a certain way, and make something that adapts to an aesthetic I have," he said. "And through that make something evocative enough to create a dialogue."
To this end, he seems to be succeeding.
"The work pulls people off the street," LeVarn said. "Bates is collected by people who are able to look at art all over the world, and they love his work. But we also get people who pass by the gallery and come in. They'll say, 'I don't usually like art, but I like this.'"