Brads. Nails. Spikes. These common everyday objects take on abstract forms in unexpected ways in the hands of Maine sculptor John Bisbee.

His artwork of nails welded and forged into different organic configurations – including pieces from his “Tons” series each made up of 1 ton of nails – can be seen in the “Bright Common Spikes: The Sculpture of John Bisbee” exhibit showing at the Portland Museum of Art.

The 25 large-scale abstract designs in steel on display through March 23 look like blueprints of the intricate passageways of Bisbee’s mind.

“Each sculpture is a new world for my secret language of form, pattern and mass,” Bisbee stated in the exhibit catalog.

The sculptor, who works out of a huge studio at Fort Andross in Brunswick, has a unique ability to take the ordinary and transform it into something clever and beautiful.

Not surprisingly, some pieces have titles that suggest real objects, for example, “Spool” and “Cocoon;” while others are more abstract constructions.

Over his more than 20-year career, Bisbee has gradually increased the size of the nails he uses from brads to 10- and 12-inch spikes. The overall scale of his work has expanded also, as evidenced in his “Tons” series.

“An inert mass of metal becomes a life-form; a straight nail becomes a twisted curlicue; a ton of spikes becomes light and decorative” – that’s how PMA Director Dan O’Leary describes Bisbee’s work.

For me, walking into the exhibit areas was like walking onto another planet.

Abstract forms in welded steel drew my attention, as did organic shapes of many sizes. Heavy serious sculptures, humorous little scrolls and seemingly lightweight spheres caught my eye.

One of the most exciting works, titled “Nail Veil,” was created by Bisbee in 1992. Its intricate and repetitive pattern looks more like a fine, lightweight fabric woven in steel than the sheet of metal nails (some rusted) that it is.

An untitled work with a harmonious, semicircular pattern created with huge nails slanted in one direction resembles a deck of cards fanned out or, perhaps, a seashell.

“Arc,” a piece from the “Tons” series, made me think of pent-up anger. “Plume,” also from the ‘Tons” series, suggested chaos to me. “Brocade,” a tightly designed work of interlaced nails, looks like a heavy tapestry in steel with interesting patterns.

“Helio,” also from the “Tons” series, is made up of geometric shapes in a circular design that is pleasing to the eye.

Thus far, Bisbee has created 11 “Tons.” According to the PMA, “groups of nails are welded together and piled in various configurations into corners, spread across the floor, or affixed to the wall. Some ‘Tons’ pieces vary with each new installation, as Bisbee does not determine the exact configuration until the moment a piece is installed.

“He arrives at the gallery with barrels filled with the component pieces and lets the spirit of the day and the idiosyncrasies of the site suggest the rest.”

Born in 1965 in Cambridge, Mass., Bisbee received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Alfred University, Alfred, N.Y., and attended the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture. He is a lecturer in the visual arts department at Bowdoin College.

He has had solo museum exhibitions at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.; and at Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. He has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., and at Yaddo Art Colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The museum at Seven Congress Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children under 6. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday. For more information, call 775-6148 or visit portlandmuseum.org.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.” She teaches children’s literature for teacher recertification for the American Institute for Creative Education.


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