Tad Savinar is a worrywart.
The 72-year-old sculptor lays awake fretting about global warming, political polarization and species extinction so you don’t have to. He reads the hard books and ruminates, then creates canny sculptures to get the point across. We’re probably doomed.
His exciting new show “Musings from the Future” (at PDX Contemporary Art, pdxcontemporary art.com/ tad-savinar, through Feb. 25), in which he celebrates 50 years as a studio artist, has that typical Savinar look, like it was made by several different artists.
There are small metal sculptures on their own shelves, long, fabric banners, a giant collage/painting made of the paper faces of analog clocks, Rorschach blots splattered on paper and prints carefully laid out in Photoshop.
There are three small sculptures on custom steel shelves based on model railroad buildings. Instead of thin plastic, they are cast in bronze, and retain all the detail. One is a church whose roof has been destroyed. Savinar added a brass cast of his own fist crushing the building. In another, a home has a brass ball on it, as though a meteorite had crashed into it. He called it “Sputnik IV.”
He explains, “The first Sputnik was the satellite, Sputnik II was Russian TV, the third Sputnik was the Russians’ version of the COVID vaccine.”
This fourth one is a mystery. “We used to know what the patterns of life were. And in the last few years, we’ve seen an upheaval in those norms. These unnatural things seem to be occurring at a more regular rate.”
Another model is a house, with something bulging out of each of the windows. He pumped the plastic house with foam before he had it cast in bronze. The bulges represent all the stuff and mental clutter we compressed into our homes during the pandemic when we were forced to stay home.
Your Name Here Death
Another pandemic piece is a tall, silk banner with “DEATH” printed on it in gold. A vinyl circle on the floor indicates where you should stand to look at it, like the social distancing spots we had to queue up on during the pandemic. “Instead of looking at the backpack of the person in front of you, you’re looking at death. It was disease that we were trying to distance ourselves from, but ultimately, it wasn’t the disease, it was that no one wanted to die. So, this is an opportunity to face that last step, however it happens,” Savinar told Pamplin Media during a guided tour.
Savinar has his printing done by Pushdot Studio, who are locally known as masters of digital printing. The silk came on a backerboard, and the gold print lay sleek and flat, even after the fabric was peeled off. He likes high production values.
Also printed by Pushdot, “Desires Denied” is more pandemic art. He covered up magazines with large black circles, a reminder of the time we couldn’t travel or luxuriate in consumerism.
Savinar has his casting done at Walla Walla Foundry in Washington State. It’s a high-tech fabricator that is normally very exclusive but still works with Savinar because they go back decades.
He has always been upfront about outsourcing the fabrication of his objects. He says he gets and idea, then lives with it, deciding how best to express it: painting, sculpture, or word art.
Another shelf piece has a carved, golden shelf, inspired by a trip to Italy, that holds two stainless steel flasks, smoothly machined and seemingly without openings. The metal bodies are attached by steel bands, welded to each other, as though two people are grabbing each other’s bodies with both arms. They objects seem impenetrable and immoveable.
It’s called “A Container for Two Opposing Views” and unlike most artists, Savinar doesn’t shy away from explaining it.
“I think we have become increasingly polarized,” says Savinar. “Certainly, the most obvious is the political climate. In this object, the two cylinders are hollow, or have something in them, an idea perhaps. Then they’re joined by these flat bars there, so that each cylinder is welded together, like a prisoner, like a conjoined twin. It’s really about that kind of state, where everything has become so entrenched that there’s no communication whatsoever.”
Chicken Little Prophet
Asked if he ever wonders if his view of the world might be wrong and that things aren’t really that bad, he laughs.
“I think about that all the time. I’m very interested in looking at something that’s going on in our culture today and exaggerating it. People tend to look at these things and go ‘No, that’s never gonna happen.’ But in the catalog essay, (critic) Linda Tesner recounts a number of times where I’ve made work that then, five or seven years later, is spot on.”
Savinar did some public art for West Side Light Rail 20 years ago and parlayed that into a side career advising at least nine other light rail projects around the country on how to integrate aesthetics into the engineering and construction of such infrastructure.
“I was writing the urban design guidelines that told the architects the design values, so everyone could understand it, including the architects and engineers, and the citizens could understand.”
He treated it like a puzzle.
“You’re building a new train through the city, through grandma’s house and through the parks. It involves every human, every kind of construction trade, every kind of land use process. It’s this giant thing. And it’s just fascinating. You know, there’s always something to figure out.”
In Phoenix, 10 years ago, working on their light rail system, he was one of only two people in the urban design department.
“So, they came up with a nickname for me in the agency. They called me Chicken Little the Prophet. Because they said ‘Tad, you tell us what’s going to happen six months in advance, and we always say when it happens, we’ll fix it, we’re not going to fix it now.’”
Another piece, “Nighttime Reading”, is a tall print where Savinar photographed several doomy, nonfiction book covers, such as “The Nuclear Biological Survival Manual”, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, “Life after Warming” and “Fear Your Future”.
He added a blue wash, and black horizontal bars occluding the covers. The point is to use classic color field technique from the 1960s and 1970s, Donald Judd-style, to distance the viewer from the hard information.
“The bars hold the participant at bay, a little bit. The colors and the structure of the image, it’s beautiful. It’s presenting imagery that may not be something we all are looking forward to (the doomsday predictions), but it can still be beautiful. First, it’s got to look good. And then when people get closer, they find that from an abstract sense, regardless of content, I think (the ideas) operate.”
He says some of the books are quackery, self-published nonsense and fear mongering, but some are not. “‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ by David Wallace is just a very clear and orderly description of his thinking of how things are breaking down.”
Savinar feels contemporary cultural discussion is a lot about the success of business, but soon we may be talking more about survival — finding enough food and fuel to get by. Wallace’s book predicts 140 million climate migrants by 2030. “There was an article in the paper the other day about the beavers in Oregon starting to migrate north,” Savinar says. “So obviously the animals know what’s going on.”
A five feet tall digital print shows bars of navy and royal blue, with white at the bottom, and a tiny photo of a beautiful red and green bug that he sourced from the internet. The bug’s on its back. It’s called “America 2020”. He’s not shy of a metaphor.
“Are we the bug, is somebody else the bug, is our country? The bug on its back. Who knows? That sense of being in a predicament is something we all know. But it seems like there’s a lot of predicaments. Life has gotten complex.”