Carol Setterlund at the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art

Sandy Thompson, ArtWeek


The Residents of grief—denial, anger, bargaining with God, depressions and acceptance—proceed, following calamitous events, with destined yet chaotic intentions. Any one can occupy the psyche for quick moment or forever. Not uncommonly, two or there can present themselves at once. There is a significant loss in Carol Setterlund’s not-too-long-ago, and she and grief still wrestle. But it is, perhaps, an almost-done contesting—past bargaining to bewildered questioning, past depression to sad resignation, soon to occupy the remodeled home of resolution.

In this show are nineteen sculpture. They are busts of oval heads set of bodily trunks, assembled, totem-like, from found wood and cut log rounds, and carved a bit by chisel and a lot by chain saw (the latter most remarkable given Setterlund’s truly elfin stature). A textural treatment of wood putty, acrylic and acrylic medium, and the occasional beeswax application, invests the surfaces of these busts with an ethereal patina. Juxtaposition with the rough scoring of the wood’s exterior creates a subtle tension, a spirit presence. From seemingly mundane media exudes serenity and vibrance, whimsy and pathos, and overall a haunting grace.

At first take, a sameness, striking yet similar, pervades the show’s totality. But stepping up to and then within the inter-personal distance between viewer-self and sculpture-self, the individuals in this gathering soon appear.

HEROIt is an assemblage of nineteen men—venerable and wise—every one scrupulously bald (a hint of the androgynous soon evaporates). Their expressions—quizzical and surprised—excite the emotional tunnel connecting former depression with future relief. There are men once gripped by nightmares and now returning to less fearful dreams. Eyebrows are raised above flat eyes the size of silver dollars. These dark eyes, slightly recessed, refuse our entry yet absorb our concentration. If eyes are portals to the soul, then these souls are a jury formed to judge. I felt as if I—an inhabitant of somewhere else—had walked into an anywhere small town anytime this century, and was being scrutinized, gently but completely.

Yet this chorus of silent inquirers is not void of personalities. With expressive lips and mouths (as in Hermano) tilts of heads (especially Gentle Herald), varying heights (Big Heart at three feet to Aristophanes at six) and body postures (the stubby wings of Shore Bird, the long and lumbering arms of Dance, Love?) each figure project a self. To me, each seemed secure (protective?) in their individual psychology, and in no way vulnerable to outside influence.

It is the gestalt of this show that captures me. First, the sculptures—the impact of each adding exponentially to the collective value. Then, the growing understanding (for someone who has not experience the loss of mother, father, sister, spouse, or children) that there is validation in the process of mourning. And last, knowing when that time arrives that art—mine or others—may be the most accessibly avenue of catharsis.

Sandy Thompson


May 1999