Barbara Sorensen: Recent Acquisitions & New Work – by Katherine Navarro


The exhibition Barbara Sorensen: Recent Acquisitions & New Work provides The Mennello Museum of American Art’s audience an exceptional opportunity to view and experience an intimate consideration into the incredible work created over the last 20 years. Sorensen has imagined and animated her medium and form over the years as living elements extracted and respectfully manipulated from nature, from Earth. Work presented here as sculpture and installation powerfully explores material and process in compelling ways to contemplate nature from earth, minerals, mountains, landscape, terrain, water, waves, currents, and constant movement. With the earliest work, a classic earthen vessel, Chalice, 1998 crafted in Orlando to her newest series, Ripples, created in her Colorado studio this past summer, together, individually and collectively reflect Sorensen’s long-time interest in our natural environment and most significantly, our relationship to it. It is the inherent beauty and simplicity of materials that allure in her work, and thus leads one to contemplate more conceptual underpinnings about human fragility in and among our natural world.

It is a privilege to present 14 of Sorensen’s works as recent acquisitions to our permanent collection, a gift from the museum’s founder Michael A. Mennello who has admired and followed her career for over 30 years. Critical to Mr. Mennello’s collecting philosophy is his ardent support for select contemporary artists as evidenced by his tradition of following artists throughout their careers and collecting multiple works by them. In addition to acquiring Sorensen’s work, directly from her studio for his personal art collection, Mr. Mennello wanted to share more of her work with Orlando and in 2000 purchased work and gifted it to the Orlando Museum of Art. This important addition of one of Orlando’s most prolific artists is a notable legacy gift in honor of the Honorable Marilyn Logsdon Mennello.

It is an additional privilege to acknowledge the gift of three hallmark works from Sorensen’s Boat series that on the occasion of this exhibition, she is generously donating to the museum. These three clay boats float effortlessly in our space casting shadows and form that conjure journey, transference, calm, and respite along the journey. She continually pushes boundaries of scale, human perception, and tactile sensitivity through material transference, as her work in clay and aluminum beautifully explores both the dynamism and force of nature, but also its quietude. All expressions, representative and abstract, inspire and entice with astonishing execution and subtle lingering trace.

On the occasion of sharing the recent acquisitions, it was also a pleasure to invite Sorensen to create a new project specific for our space and that focused on a new and experimental direction for the artist. I am delighted to debut her new series Ripples as truly representative of an exciting juncture with ample room for growth, beautifully unfold in our galleries in meaningful ways.

This exhibition reaffirms The Mennello Museum’s continued commitment to contemporary American artists in fulfilling our mission though innovative exhibition making and original scholarship. The history of American art is broad: rich, beautiful, inspiring, complex, fraught, and debated. To consider its robust past is as important as including the present as well. I am thankful for all who contribute to our work with art, artists, education, and in sustaining The Mennello Museum as one of Orlando’s greatest assets.

Shannon Fitzgerald, Executive Director, The Mennello Museum of American Art


Barbara Sorensen’s Ripples are site-specific installations created for exhibition at The Mennello Museum of American Art. Ripples marks the artist’s latest and continued foray into the physical manipulation of the earth on ever-greater metaphorical levels than previously ventured. From her earliest and most miniature clay Pandora’s Boxes, to her expansive, open Chalice and Boats series, to the twisting and rising Goddesses, into the open-air aluminum three-dimensional Dwellings, and the textured Wind, Pools, and Dunes set loose on gallery floors and walls, Sorensen has truly explored the limitlessness of landscape as inspiration through her personal innovations in both style and materiality. This exhibition traces her evolution in materiality from the pedestal to the wall. Some might perceive the artist’s Ripples deviation as a break with her original subject matter, abstract expression and the reinterpretation of the landscape. However, continuity and then progression are evident in both her practice and sculpture, which mirror the formation of the earth itself geologically and then again throughout prehistoric and modern human interventions.

Sorensen’s Ripples emerge in three varied silhouettes, which are secured to the gallery walls by a wooden mount. Ridged, grooved aluminum sculptural forms are cut and bent, decisively hand painted in either gold, copper or white, and then organized into a harmony within a single base to flow within a greater assemblage. As one enters the gallery, Ripples in Gold is the first piece visible, its gilt luster highlighting at the peaks of aluminum and shadowing in bends of high contrast, sculptural chiaroscuro. The sculptural assemblage is positioned on four black squares rotated to a diamond shape with all four comprising a greater diamond. Approaching the Ripples in Gold, it is likely that the viewer will spy Ripples in Copper at the corner of their eye. To the right towering over and projecting under the viewer, three squares rise upward on the wall. Again, the copper aluminum gently waves upward into the viewer’s dimension and back down toward a painted black mounting base.

After the overall perspective of these first pieces are celebrated, Ripples in White, the largest and most ambitious of the Ripples series thus far, erupts from the entire left gallery wall. A rectangular grid of four by three squares is prepared by Sorensen to entice closer looking. White painted aluminum on a white wooden base envelope the entire wall evoking a completely different response than the luxury and sumptuous opulence of the metallic pieces. It is at this intersection, with Ripples in White, that Sorensen demands the viewer to begin considering this new series within the context of her career challenging the purposes and structural intent of material as well as the creation and reinterpretation of landscape.

Over four billion years before the first modern humans traversed and admired the immensity of the natural world, plates of the earth’s crust smashed and pulled apart over a molten mantel, oceans rose and fell, meteorites forced depressions, and volcanoes brought forth new land; together these natural forces piled, split, stacked, and expanded the landscape we see today. Time and formation are recorded in geological stratigraphy, the earth’s history written in layers of surging and plunging—every build up and tear down—visible for all to observe and interpret. For years, Sorensen echoed this narrative method in her clay vessels, highlighting not only the ceramic’s layers of creation but also her own empathetic process in its formation.

She pushed and pulled slabs of clay, pushed her mark into the earth, and constructed forms for containment of an unseen gift. The vessels that comprise the Chalice Forest as well as the Hanging Boats demonstrate just these formative actions.

Sorensen does not deviate from her manipulation of the earth in Ripples, rather she amplifies the fundamental properties, the mineral composition of clay, by using it in the form of aluminum. The most abundant metal on earth, aluminum is a material that must be mined, extracted, and then refined from clay soils by human forging, representing the next logical step in the artist’s range in forming the earth. Her development creates the opportunity to metamorphically give the manmade material back to the earth through processual and stylistic emulation. Sorensen responds to, and works with, these new metal forms quickly creating a sense of immediacy not possible working in the prolonged production of ceramic sculptures—an expression evident by her sharp twisting, bending, and cutting of the material.

Paralleling the formation of the landscape, Ripples in White visually alludes to the creation of Florida’s own unique topography, which occurred more recently in geological time than the formation of the mountains and valleys familiar to Sorensen’s Chalices. Marine sediments, sands, and ancient calcined shells from the ocean built up over Florida’s limestone peninsula and with each rise and fall of the ocean levels new deposits built upward over millions of years. The tactile ridges and crests of the aluminum echo back to the folds and texture familiar to Sorensen’s clay sculptures but at the same time elicit contemplation of a new landscape, one formed fluvially in sand through ebbs and flows, crashing waves. The artist reflects the duality of her life spent working and exploring the opposing Florida and Colorado landscapes that shape the way she interprets sculptural form. Even the snowcapped, melting green mountains may be reflected in the peak of ripples.

As the viewer gazes over the ripples of aluminum rising and falling in concert from the wall, one does not think of a simple drop and resultant circular ripple in a calm body of water. The ripples are not organized, continuous lines of traveling water glistening in silver from the light of the sun as would be caused by a directional gust of wind over a small lake. Instead, the ripples are energetic, rapid, and miniature waves, hurried disturbances connected by irregular lines in white water. In essence, this action represents the presence of many and hectic creators—possibly natural forces but also human, animal, or a combination of the three.

In the Boats and Chalice series, the viewer is left with just the roughened outer surfaces bulging and exhibiting signs of weathering leaving behind only traces of active land, water, and wind. The incisions in the Boats remind the viewer of a sea vessel, which continues its travels forward but in its past has hit a jagged shoreline and built up a protective outer shell of barnacles over time. The inside remains smooth and organic, but it is also molded by the journey. If the roughened surfaces of Sorensen’s Hanging Boats are seen as a graphic remnant of a vessel having passed through harsh, uncontrollable environments shaping its current form and direction over time, then the Ripples series can be representative of those three natural forces—sharp land, rough waters, and omnidirectional wind in the moment of movement. The forces are visible, extensive and complicated. There is inherent danger in the Ripples not seen on the ceramic pieces. The lattice intricacy of waves that flow through each piece delicately fit together but imply the risk of the viewer being swept under and cut upon the harsh landscape without the protection of a boat. Even the shadows and gradations of gray formed by the purposeful and dramatic lighting of Ripples reinforce the notion of sharp bends and twists whereas the still – if gently moving shadows – of the boats denotes the calm, a space of stillness, quietude, and somber waters after the rough passing of storms.

Sorensen’s choice to move from clay to aluminum further makes one consider how we as humans are also molding the world around us. Not only has the earth been shaped by natural forces, but by our own decisions and ambitions as well. There is no doubt that in modern history humans have drastically changed each landscape on which they reside from monumental architecture of stone and steel, to agricultural feats, the industrial revolution, and even waste management. This Anthropocene, the contemporary geological epoch in which we all live, is now being shaped not only by the same uncontrollable, natural forces that previously designed the earth, but the forces we all impose on it.

In Ripples, Sorensen diverges from a traditional, historic medium of containment in clay toward a contemporary material in aluminum. The invention of ceramic technologies in archaeological, prehistoric populations typically marks evidence for the beginning of a form of agricultural revolution – representing a need for people to contain, store, and then cook food in one sedentary space over a longer period of time than previous nomadic generations. During times of respite, and even as a profession, artists began to explore, modify, and enhance their utilitarian containers for many different reasons, including ritual, spiritual, elite users, and arguably, art for art’s sake. Without oversimplifying more than 40,000 years of human wonder and expression, Sorensen’s 20 years of art in this exhibition symbolically embody our shared history of imaginative investigation through her own personal transformation in technology and abstract subject matter.

In her earlier works, Sorensen created a metaphorical space to be filled with otherworldly gifts or occupied by an allegorical personality and then emptied or left. Ripples, in its new material and form, expands upon the idea of hold and releasing through physically and openly displaying the released gifts or personality of the symbolic container.

Ripples in White feels as though it is the first, almost pure form in the series. Only hints of the underlying material glisten below the white paint, which encompasses the sculpture. This is the material in its fundamental form for the artist to amplify, recreate and make her own. Next, the metallic underpinnings are revealed through Ripples in Copper, the white paint shaken from the foundation of the substrate and sculptural forms. The copper reminds the viewer of an earthen luster, similar to a wet or slipped ceramic and the artist’s earlier works. Finally, Ripples in Gold twists and turns in an outward explosion, the hidden interior of the chalice, the space for offerings and gifts to the heavens has opened and is now free within our world. There is a revelation of the internal and contained world as suddenly and aggressively open to the viewer, and the sculptural media once created to contain is now forced open by the artist’s hand.

The Mennello Museum of American Art’s exhibition Barbara Sorensen: Recent Acquisitions & New Work thoughtfully reveals the artist’s individual progression in the symbolic representation of the self. Sorensen travels from roughened and concealed ceramic vessels to boundless, sharp, and exposed aluminum racing with energy through her daring investigations and insightful language of sculpture. Barbara Sorensen’s work takes the viewer on a journey of formation for both oneself, our shared human history, and the earth.

Katherine Navarro