Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stephen Sabo: Dinosaurs, Desert Owls, and Impossible Bottles

Ohio has a phenomenal legacy of folk and outsider artists who have been received with honor in our state. Duff Lindsay, the owner of the Lindsay Gallery in Columbus, has been chief among those who cultivate the public's knowledge and appreciation of our unschooled masters.
Stephen Sabo, owls from Desert Creatures.

During April and May, Lindsay is presenting the work of such an artist who has only recently come to light. Stephen Sabo worked on our city's south side until his death in 2002 at the age of 99. His early years were spent in Murray City in southeastern Ohio. His formal education ended at age 14 when he was sent, like many a child, to work in the coal mines. Over the years he was able to leave the mines, move to Columbus and marry, working variously as a line man, machinist, self-taught taxidermist, father—and as perpetual autodidact. He loved simple pleasures of country masculinity to the end: hunting and fishing; whittling and carving in the peace and quiet of his basement at home.

Lindsay acquired Sabo's oeuvre last year. Sabo never promoted his own work beyond a local seniors' gift shop (the Golden Hobby Shop), so he was known to a limited community. Lindsay has recently shown the work at the New York Outsider Art Fair, where it was singled out for praise by Roberta Smith of the New York Times. It has also been presented in a solo show at the Springfield (Ohio) Art Museum.

This show is remarkable on the face of it for including work that spans at least eighty years.
Stephen Sabo, Fish and Crayfish,
14 x 16 x 8."
Sabo never quit carving. Some of the pieces shown, then, are very fine and detailed, both in terms of the carving itself and its painting. His fish, mounted in the manner of taxidermic specimens, are exquisite—even beyond taxidermy's possibilities for eternal freshness, I suspect—as are his birds, which are sometimes worthy of display in natural history  museums. They are prepared not only in natural positions, but in positions that best display their identifying markings. The birds are self-illustrating, like birds by Audubon or Roger Torey Peterson. Again, this may be a result of taxidermy, which would provide the perfect opportunity for close-up study.

 Stephen Sabo, Two birds, 15 x 10.5."
 Wood mounted on panel.

 On the other hand, Sabo couldn't have known natural postures without having spent considerable time observing live animals. I was fascinated by Sabo's footed, two-sided panel representing Birds North America on one side, with Animals of North America on the other. The creatures are carved in bas-relief in carefully planned designs that fit elegantly onto the panels. Birds, raccoons, and bison are all painted in true colors; the backgrounds are uniformly a creamy white with the exception of the blue around the mountain goats. Blue creates the sense that we are looking up at them, standing on a peak. That passage of blue sky clinches our sense of Sabo's sophisticated awareness, which lifts the work out of naive vision.

Stephen Sabo, Animals of North America, 
23 x 13 x 2." (Two-sided, Birds verso)
Stephen Sabo, Birds of North America.
23 x 13 x 2."
(Two-sided, Animals verso)
The background painting on these panels is rough and must have been applied at the end of the project, for it obtrudes up the edges of the animal forms and even onto a few of them. Its uneven application grants a liveliness in the background, but there's a crude, uneven outlining that dulls the acuity of the nature perceptions.

Yet it's the carving finesse that carries the day. The attitudes of the animals are completely engaging. The snippety cant of the blue jay on its branch; the little confrontation between mother and child squirrel posited in the positions of legs and tails; the pan-species maternal gesture in the doe with her nursing fawn. This work lacks the perfection of the fish tableau, but we find that there is technical latitude in Sabo's expressive powers.

The range of Sabo's subjects is broad enough and so free of outright eccentricity that I fancy him a member in good standing of a time-honored fraternity of American carvers and whittlers bent over their solitary work in basements, garages and huts while womenfolks occupy themselves elsewhere more gregariously. In Sabo's work we encounter a rural, folkloric man's world undisturbed by communications. Only the automotive and athletic aspects are missing from an other wise full plate of classic male folk subjects: Nature; Christian stories and subjects of narrative rather than passionate importance; tableaux of daily life—miners, farmers, Western characters, exotic peoples; circuses; raptors and dinosaurs. There are lots of dinosaurs.      

Stephen Sabo, Deer Trophy, wood and antlers.
Because Sabo's career was so long, Lindsay sensibly speculates that deteriorating manual skill accounts for the big differences in the looks of his works. While he produced iridescent, life-like mounted trophy fish at one point (see above), at another he made a trophy head of a deer that looked like it what it is: a block head with small antlers roughly attached. Is this the difference between ages 25 and 85; between nimble fingers and arthritic ones; of prime vision and failing?
Stephen Sabo, Dinosaur
Stephen Sabo, Dinosaur, view 2
Even the more crudely fashioned work is not without its liveliness and charm, however. I found this unspecified dinosaur very endearing in its puppy-like stance and uncertain gesture toward ferocity. Most of Sabo's subjects have some quality of the observed, even when it's only through photographs. I enjoy works like this, in which I suspect that the artist called on vague, inspecific clusters of memory, supplemented by snippets of whole cloth. The results have a life of their own.

While some of Sabo's work—presumably later—is blockish and carved without the finesse that so marks the wildlife figures above, it seems to be invested with the carver's sense of curiosity and engagement nevertheless. One of the most delightful works in the show is Circus Horses, his presentation of a familiar inspiration for artists in every medium. Six horses and two ponies perform for a trainer who directs while a child performs a handstand on a pony's back. We've seen above that Sabo was once able virtually to breathe life into animal carvings. In this case, he cannot. The tableau abstractly represents the moment at the circus; none of the figures, equine or human, is naturalistically rendered. 
Stephen Sabo, Circus Horses, 10 x 24 x 21. Courtesy of the Lindsay Gallery.
The scene is far from dull, though, for it offers the delight of its stylization, the rhythm and symmetry that are essential to such circus acts. The unity of purpose between horses and people is emphasized by both the dissimilarity of sizes (big horses; tiny acrobat) and the similarity of their costumes. The abstract delights of order, fantasy, and power controlled for a beautiful design are all captured in carving technique that need not be polished for effective and convincing expression.

Steven Sabo, Indian Village, impossible bottle, 20 x 12 x 12."
Courtesy, Lindsay Gallery.
This show includes two wonderful "impossible bottles." The well-known ship-in-a-bottle in a sub-genre of this form of puzzle, in which something apparently too large to insert into a bottle is nevertheless put there. (For an enormous on-line gallery of work by Sabo's peers in this genre, see Folk Art in Bottles.) Sabo's impossible bottles are tour de force, vastly detailed dioramas of village life. One shows pioneer life, and the other is life in an Indian village. In the latter, a man cuts open a hanging carcass of an animal. The animal's head lies on the ground, miraculously unmolested by two dogs. The tiny scene contains a pony, another man,  and three woman, one with a papoose. 

There's a tipi, and a large log that lies to one side.
Stephen Sabo, Indian Village, impossible bottle, detail
The painted background places the scene in a mid-autumn landscape. The outside measurement for this busy and peaceful environment: 20 x 12 x 12." It certainly seems impossible.

Stephen Sabo:Whittler, Tinkerer...Artist provides a particular opportunity to see a lifetime retrospective of the most condensed sort. That the work is undated is not the distraction one would at first think. I found myself thinking of the artist as an embodied human with aging faculties and body. He will either allow these to remove carving from his life; or he will adjust his carving to his changed abilities. With age's trembling of hands and fogging of vision, perception, awareness, and knowledge can continue to grow. 

For anyone who ever wonders how people come to be artists or how they develop and what inspires them, this show is a wide-open door into just such a story of unusual accessibility. Sabo had a lot of simple interests, it seems, and he thought best when his hands were busy. In this show, it's not hard to see where artists come from, and that it's persistence and continuity of desire that make the difference.

Stephen Sabo, Circus Horses, detail
All photography by the author unless otherwise specified.

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