Nice legwork, if you can get it

The ultimate stamp of approval wielded by the art world is a solo exhibition in New York. Young artists hunger for that baptism with all the adolescent passion of a forbidden love. Conventional wisdom on how to go about achieving such a goal advises that, aside from being talented and tenacious, one must be willing to live in the Big Apple — starving the flesh off one’s bones to pay the shocking rents, groveling at the feet of gallery owners, and schmoozing at parties where the capricious chic will deign to weigh your fate (while savoring fancy hors d’oeuvres in Olympian fashion).

With his November opening at the John Elder Gallery in New York’s tree-lined Chelsea district, Asheville-by-way-of-Illinois wood sculptor Randy Shull will receive that stamp of approval for a third time — without having succumbed to the heartbreaks of the New York mythos.

Shull has trumped the starving-artist life by working his way toward the New York City scene step by step. Having exhibited all over the East Coast and in the Midwest, he then took his wares to what many artists simply call “The City” for his first solo exhibit in 1994, at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery (which now represents Shull), and followed that up with a return show the next year. The John Elder exhibition has, in a sense, come to Shull — a reward for his patience.

Swirling coffee in a paper cup as he leans against the front window of Zone one contemporary gallery, where his latest pieces — collectively titled “Legwork” — are currently on display, Shull explains his excitement about flying north for the John Elder opening. “It’s a validation to have a New York show, and it’s a lot of fun for me, because my work isn’t considered so avant garde up there,” he says. “To [get] the show, with the pieces pre-sold, put a lot of pressure on me to produce. But it’s a big ego boost, too.”

Despite the round, wire-framed eyeglasses of the serious artist, Shull exudes a disarming laissez faire attitude, as if he had accidentally stumbled into an extended vacation. But beneath that carefree cover is a man who has proven himself by unleashing his work upon gallery-goers at a prolific rate throughout the ’90s.

Shull — whose father is a carpenter and a woodcarver (and whose intricately carved basswood statuettes are displayed alongside his son’s work at Zone one) — has been working with wood since adolescence, much of which was spent at building sites with the elder Shull in the windswept town of Lincoln, Ill. He formally studied woodworking-as-art at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and, finally, the Penland School of Crafts. His work resides in the permanent collections of the American Crafts Museum of New York, the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Mint Museum in Charlotte (which featured Shull’s work in a solo show last fall). Shull’s resume lists three sojourns as artist-in-residence, three instructorships, and one adjunct professorship — all at some of the nation’s most respected crafts schools.

The “Legwork” exhibit showcases both Shull’s technical prowess and his humorous creativity. The colorful oval-and-crescent-shaped wall sculptures form a tight thematic spiral, all sibling configurations of a single concept: descending chair legs stretching toward the floor and small doors, behind which lurk the elder Shull’s exquisitely detailed, whimsical human-head figures. All the pieces’ wooden planes are bent in convex curves and bubble out from the wall, almost as if they were breathing.

“I think that wall art can [address] furniture design without being furniture,” Shull says, resting his newspaper and empty coffee cup on one of his sculptures as if it were a shelf — and eliciting curious stares from several gallery visitors.

In the center of the gallery sits a long dinner table, marked by thickly layered, opaque white paint. The chairs that surround the table are decorated with brightly colored, elaborately carved food sculptures, suspended within their backs. Between the two genres –the non-utilitarian wall art and the functional furniture, such as the dinner table and chairs — Shull hopes to generate magnetized questions.

“I hope that people will be able to make up their own questions and answers about my work,” he explains, as the sculpture behind him appears to pulse out from the wall toward the table, as if the two were scheming to switch places.

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