Born Lansing, MI, 1959 / BA, Hope College, Holland, MI / MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI / Lives in Farmington Hills, MI
Todd Erickson’s recent sculptures, the “River Series” of 2009-2016, treat the eye to a richly inventive array of looping, interlacing ovals and circles. Each sinuous variant, however, also harbors singular details and idiosyncratic extrusions that further animate these “bronze rivers.” They range from an occasional thickening of the slender, linear outlines to projecting “growths,” intent, it seems, on springing free of the governing rings and hoops. Cast in bronze from branches and twigs gathered by the artist, these restless rivers twist and turn, swerve and whipsaw as the eye flows around their final form.
In Betsie River II (2015) the vertical oval at right is counterweighted by the tall, bending branch at the left that sports half a dozen thin, upward-swerving limbs that break free of this stabilizing element. Such rogue appendages are endemic to Erickson’s meandering sculptures and akin to the networks of streams, creeks, and rivulets that glide toward or away from a waterway’s main branch. As Erickson sees it, “Much like humans, rivers are programmed to let go at a certain point. They are geographically prone to allow the water to flow into the next channel, lake or tributary….Letting go is what protects and keeps them alive [while hanging on] to certain aspects of their aquatic systems.” This “story of the river” is, for him, germane to the enduring human conversation about constancy and change, stasis and flux.
“Letting go” and “hanging on” are invoked in the aptly titled Hold Free River of 2013. Its broad, central, head-like form—five feet tall—and overlapping half-circles at right give rise to fragile, nascent outgrowths that gingerly parallel the dominant branch. Wall reliefs are another often essayed format. Some, such as Blue Line River (2012) and Nesting River (2015), approach five feet in width and course along horizon lines from which jut numerous extensions: angled, bundled, highlighted in color as in the former; swaged, nested, and gold-tipped in the latter.
The meticulously detailed and subtly patinated bronze “branches” (ranging from mossy greens to variegated browns) of Erickson’s river pieces are due in large part to his self-described “plein air” practice. Often harvesting branches from the meadows, forests, and beaches of a family retreat near Crystal Lake in northwestern Michigan, he builds a full scale model out-of-doors—with twist-ties!—that he subsequently transports to his urban studio. There he casts, then seamlessly and invisibly welds, multiple lengths of bronze boughs—anywhere from eighteen to thirty plus units in the largest works—to faithfully recreate his original design. This comprehensive expertise serves him well at the College for Creative Studies, where he teaches sculpture and oversees the foundry and exhibition services.
Interestingly, Erickson’s portage to his current, aqueous-imbued bronzes opened with such bold and hunky steel objects as Rolling Home (1992) and Beverly’s Song (1990). Both employ wheels, the first suggestive of a winged wheel that actually rolls, and the second indicative of some vaguely functional (or dysfunctional) artifact. Its wheel turns while the sphere spins, the curved, mini-Richard Serra steel plate scraping along in its wake. The branches and arcs emerged in mini-woodland scenes like 2008’s Trading Post, a wall mounted relief of bronze and wood intended as a critique of the commercialization of national parks, historical sites, and highway rest stops (note the ubiquitous McDonald’s arches).
Other early works featured ladders as prominent totems, an armature that appears in one of the earliest of Erickson’s faux branch sculptures: Paradise Ascension of 2009. Its title refers to the historically black business district of Paradise Valley, largely demolished by the routing of I-75. Commissioned by the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center in Detroit, it resides in the foyer of the Center to greet arriving guests. Fully six feet tall and nine feet in width, its thin, linear silhouette resembles both a striding animal and a domed structure. Two points of access draw the eye to its arching, aspirational form, the ladder to the right and the tall S-shaped branch on the left that extends above and beyond the arching “back” up into the sky via its searching, upthrust “neck.” Boding renewal and hope for a city in transition, it embodies as well an early example of the aesthetic sensibility Erickson has continued to evolve.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, April 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016