Labeling art is sometimes a useful shorthand form of thinking. But it can also be a sign of flabby thought.
Take that well-worn term “conceptual art.” It has been applied to lots of different kinds of work in recent years, so much so that it becomes of less and less use.
Roman de Salvo’s inventive work is rich with ideas and idiosyncratic media, so this description has been applied to his work often, going back to the early 1990s. And yet the label fits uneasily with his art.
Consider this typical definition of it from Webster’s Dictionary: “an art in which the ideas of the artist are more important than the means used to express them.” Applying it to de Salvo’s art doesn’t quite work.
There is a generally a controlling idea. But he’s also a superb maker of things, whether his material is electrical conduit or whether it’s wood, as in his current exhibition at Quint Contemporary Art.
The works in this show — with its alliterative title, “Split, Splice, Splay, Display” — pick up where he left off with his large-scale permanent public work of 2006, “Nexus Eucalyptus,” installed on the site of the CalTrans District 11 headquarters in Old Town. The construction of the piece was a feat of engineering, in which he turned massive branches into a kind of seamless network resembling a roadway system.
The implied image dovetailed neatly with its site. But there was a second idea embedded within the piece — now more pronounced in the much smaller works on view. It’s the way that he fits together segments of branches that weren’t designed to go together. He looks for a pattern in branches where none existed, joining them without altering their basic contours.
It’s a form of collaboration with nature — using the processes named in the show’s title. How else can we view the delicate looking and elegant “Patch,” with its irregular network of lines from olive branches? The most evident transformation of his materials is in the leveling of the surfaces for uniform flatness and the beautifully formed wood hinges joining the elements of a piece. The pattern here looks less like roadways than veins or abstract gathering of lines.
De Salvo seems to relish the way this same method can yield very different forms and structures. “Loquat” (made from the branches of loquat trees) required more finessing of individual segments, since the final shape resembles an ink-blot drawing. One half of if resembles the other along a vertical axis. And brass hinges add a wry touch.
Some titles are more ambiguous in relation to the overarching form. “Filter,” fashioned from Chinese elm sections, looks a bit like a giant leaf at its perimeters, while its interior lines suggest the veins of that leaf. “Delta Tissue,” also made from Chinese elm, evokes a sampling of microscopic cells.
The seeming anomaly among the six exhibited works is “Cursive,” which, true to its title, consists of two long slender curves joined at the middle and with tight curls at their endpoints. De Salvo mixes rounded and flattened portions and, if you look closely, you’ll see that he gets the tight curls at the top and bottom of the long curves by assembling diminutive pieces of wood, seamlessly blended. De Salvo is a virtuoso with materials who doesn’t hit you over the head with his virtuosity.
Another of the admirable qualities in de Salvo’s art is the way new work continues to expand on the ideas in past creations. The notion of a complex weave or network of lines echoes his pieces made from electrical conduit. And the attention to woodworking is something he explored in pieces where he employed woodburning for making images. (De Salvo is clearly fan of everyday arts and crafts.)
What makes him such a convincing artist is the way idea and making are bound together so tightly, and so elegantly that you can’t tell one from the other. Each contributes to the pleasures, intellectual and sensory, abundant in his art.