For artist Justin Bishop, everything comes back to water.
"As a surfer," he says, "I'm constantly looking at topography and how the ocean shelf makes waves break and how sandbars are created." He mixes water, topography, maps, dreams and memories in the metal sculptures, drawings and paintings on display in Richmond for the first time at Red Door Gallery.
It's a show that took a decade to come together. "I had a class about 10 years ago down at the old Shockoe Bottom Art Center," says Jerry Shapiro, owner of Red Door Gallery. "Justin had a piece down there that caught my eye. It was a fantastic metal sculpture of a man with his arms wide open. It was such a dramatic work of art to me."
The piece had impact. Five years later, when Shapiro opened his own gallery he tried without success to locate Bishop, hoping to show his work. A year ago, Bishop just happened to visit the gallery. "I've been looking for you for 10 years," Shapiro told him.
"All coincidence aside, Justin's work is astounding," Shapiro says. "He's got that thing certain artists have where he can execute a vision and have it look like something."
Much of Bishop's sculpture is made of cast iron recycled from old radiators and bathtubs. "I like iron a lot," the sculptor says, "because it reacts to water and it brings this sort of industrial metal back into a natural state. The different shades of rust are really more beautiful than any metal finish I could do to it."
He built a small foundry in his backyard, based on one he ran for renowned Professor George Beasley while completing his masters in fine arts at Georgia State University. "This process is so ancient," Bishop says. "It almost comes down to artists to be the torchbearers of this knowledge. Nobody is casting like this anymore. They've all got high-tech induction furnaces."
The work that emerges from the fiery, labor-intensive process is often geographically personal. The piece "Old Rag Summit," from a series of cast iron baskets and bowls, is the reverse topography of the highest point of Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah National Park. Bishop climbed that mountain with his father as a child.
The sculptures span 10 years of work. Earlier pieces are more figurative, as in "The Rule of Seventy" in which a group of elongated, expressive figures labor to replicate themselves, creating a disconcerting statement about overpopulation.
Many of the drawings and paintings literally contain elements from memory and the natural world. "For some of the drawings I used actual rust and clay or salt water from the places that meant something to me, like ink from walnuts from trees by a river I fished on," Bishop says. "I try to bring physical things from those places into the work. I've used dust from the clay at the creek to give color."
"When you see his finished pieces, it's the work of someone who should be an artist," Shapiro says. "It looks like something you want to connect with." S
Justin Bishop's "Drawings and Sculpture: Work from the Past Ten Years" opens May 6 and runs through June 18 at Red Door Gallery, 1607 W. Main St. For information call 358-0211.