“Gymnasts” by David Cargill

One doesn’t have to go far to find an iconic David Cargill sculpture. Whether it be Mirabeau B. Lamar’s head in Lamar University’s Quad or the altar at St. Francis or the Rogers Brothers in downtown, Cargill’s work is a quintessential fixture in Southeast Texas.

However, if you are looking to get an immersive Cargill experience, the Art Museum of Southeast Texas has you covered with “The Lighter Side of David Cargill,” on display through Sept. 12.

Separated into three sections — Love, Whimsey and Play — the exhibition is a delightful mini-retrospective (let’s be honest, it would take a museum 10 times the size to house a true overview of the 92-year-old Beaumonter’s prodigious output). As the title suggests, the show is a joyful experience with a chance to get up close with the artist’s various techniques and styles.

The academic in me was at first put off by the lack of dates on the title cards. How am I supposed to relate the style to a particular movement that may have influenced Cargill in that particular period of his career? But I quickly shook off that pedantry and realized that, unencumbered by intellectual quantification, I was free to wander through the gallery and just wallow in the wonderful work.

“The Lighter Side of David Cargill” at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas

Cargill’s (presumably) early work shows the sure tough of a skilled sculptor. The bronze and terracotta relief panels “Portraits of Sally and Mary Bachman” are lovely classical portraits. Nearby is the terracotta coupling “Two Silly Girls With Nothing To Do,” a delightfully surreal pair that are guaranteed to raise a smile in the viewer.

“Portraits of Sally and Mary Bachman” by David Cargill

This juxtaposition of styles is a perfect embodiment of Cargill’s work. He is the creator of both epic and intimate, serious and playful, realistic and surrealistic. This is not to suggest his work is stylistically inconsistent. In a career spanning eight decades, it would be a poor artist who did not experiment with — and master — a variety of ideas.

My personal preference is for the more surreal pieces, but that is simply a style choice. In essence, the styles matter little. What is clear is Cargill’s continuing exploration of the human condition. 

“Gymnasts” is a marvelous work, comprising nine “blobby” abstract terracotta figures curving over, under, around and through a series of rudimentary steel bars. I suggest taking the time to circle the scene to get every possible angle. I crouched down low, stood high on tiptoe, and contorted myself until I realized I was echoing the gymnasts themselves. Life mirrors art.

“Family of Dancers” by David Cargill

Two small groupings reveal Cargill’s gift for capturing movement with a minimum of fuss. “Family of Dancers” has five figures holding hands in various poses, each figure showing the artist’s hand as he has pulled and pushed the clay from which they are cast. Their connectivity conveys a shared joy. Next to that is “Rockettes,” eight abstracted figures that perfectly capture the high-kick line. There is no real detail at all, yet it couldn’t be anything else.

“Two Silly Girls” by David Cargill

It would be easy to talk about each piece in “The Lighter Side,” as each individual sculpture is rich with detail and meaning. But that would mean doing your work for you — although work is not the right word. Exploring Cargill’s exhibition is surely the definition of play, with a healthy dose of whimsey. You’ll love it.

“The Lighter Side of David Cargill” is on display through Sept. 12 at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, located at 500 Main St. in downtown Beaumont, Texas. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturdays and noon-5 p.m., Sundays.

For more information, visit http://www.amset.org.

This review first ran in the July 30, 2021 issue of Art of Living, a publication of the Beaumont Enterprise.

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