A Tinker McCauley Retrospective at the Broward Main Library Unearths a Lifetime of Transforming Objects

When Katherine Helmers McCauley passed away last fall, she left behind a body of work that was vast and varied. That conclusion is based on the sprawling and generous retrospective on display at the Broward County Main Library. It takes up all of Gallery Six, covers more than four decades,...
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When Katherine Helmers McCauley passed away last fall, she left behind a body of work that was vast and varied. That conclusion is based on the sprawling and generous retrospective on display at the Broward County Main Library. It takes up all of Gallery Six, covers more than four decades, and features nearly 50 pieces, including the unfinished one that was sitting on the artist’s easel when she died.

McCauley was commonly known as “Tinker,” dating back to a childhood fondness for Tinkertoys and a gift for tinkering. I can’t think of a more appropriate nickname for someone whose career was distinguished by such a playful spirit and an innate curiosity about materials and the ways in which they might be transformed. Almost everything in this well-chosen show, assembled by Kathryn McCauley Morton, the artist’s daughter, seems to take as its inspiration Jasper Johns’ famous dictum: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”

Most often, it seems, McCauley liked to take her blowtorch to pieces of wood, first charring them, then carving runelike forms into the seared surfaces. Sometimes she worked with chunks of raw, unrefined wood; other times the wood was shaped and fully formed, often into hinged panels that open ever so slightly to divulge their secret contents. There’s a display case where the artist’s tools of her trade are gathered, including a couple of those propane torches, tubes of acrylics, and other odds and ends.

A biographical sketch nearby describes her progression: “She slashed canvas in the 60s, poured resin in the 70s, burnished metal in the 90s, and used a propane blowtorch to burn her works in the 2000s.” Actually, as the exhibition demonstrates, Tinker appears to have been burning wood all along: There are charred pieces dating back to the 1970s. (A mysterious coda to the bio — “After she turned 80, she began some new approaches: smashing car windows, setting off fireworks, and exploding gunpowder” — is not elaborated upon, leaving us to speculate whether McCauley became a felon or a performance artist.)

Earthy, elemental, and unabashedly spiritual, McCauley’s art not only takes advantage of transformation as a technique, it’s art that’s about transformation as well. The titles chronicle a body of work that is built around ritual: Tabernacle II, Burnt Offering, Prophet, Heaven Bent, Sanctum, Paleo Prayer, Postmodern Totem, Cosmic Tree. For McCauley, fire was a force that purified and elevated, scarred and sanctified. In her hands, tree branches and palm husks became sacred objects, shaped and transformed, not necessarily beyond recognition but into a higher realm.

The juxtaposition of a pair of pieces near the entrance to the show is a startling indication that McCauley’s basic concerns changed little over time. Pierced II, from the ’70s, gives us a copper spear point combined with charred husks from a palm tree, with the whole apparatus attached to a bent and twisted wire armature. Next to it, As the Tree Grows, from 2005, incorporates a couple of tree branches and pieces of burnt paper, all set against a backdrop of cascading runes. Both works manifest a remarkably consistent vision of human intervention as a way of taming objects from the natural world.

Again and again, McCauley isolates a moment in time when an object is poised between its origins in nature and the potential it takes on in human hands. Sometimes the human intervention is minimal, as in Equation, which pairs a piece of raw wood with a wooden ball or orb that has had a crude coat of aluminum leaf applied to its surface. Five Creatures, thought to be from the 1990s, puts the contrast in starker terms: A graceful chunk of preserved wood in its natural state sits atop a sleekly assembled wooden box that has been burnt and painted with the title animals, which suggest the creatures of cave painting.

And yet, in its emphasis on process, much of McCauley’s art is oddly akin to abstract art — art that’s about its own making as much as anything else. A work like Small Sculpture, with its simple assemblage of burnt wood panel, rusty metal brace, and fragment of cement cylinder, suggests that she knew both the potential and the limitations of abstraction.

In many of these works, it’s hard to look at the charred forms and not envision the circumstances under which they came to be. The artist’s presence is always implied. The exhibition becomes an exercise in archaeology, in which the objects before us bear witness to the excavations that brought them to light.

Maybe that’s because McCauley herself was something of an adventurer in the art world. Having moved to Fort Lauderdale at the beginning of the 1950s, she taught art to children at the Las Olas storefront that became the Fort Lauderdale Art Center, the forerunner of today’s Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale. She went on to become the museum’s head docent, leading expeditions to uncover the stories told by the art of others.

Knowing McCauley primarily from her Museum of Art connections, and having seen only isolated examples of her own artistic output over the years, I was surprised and impressed at the full scope of her art. This fine retrospective, which is nearing the final days of its brief run, is a fitting tribute to a true American original.

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