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Of Angels and Equines

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: January, 2018, Page 80
Photos by Brandon Sullivan

Artist Carl Dahl sculpts his classically inspired horses and angels at the dining room table of his home in Goodyear. Steel armatures support the clay forms and also serve as legs for his expressionist creations.
Carl Dahl’s Evocative Sculptures of Humans and Horses Recall the Beauty and Emotion of the Ancient World

The figure—whether human or animal—has been a central theme of visual arts throughout history. It has inspired some of the world’s most celebrated works, from early cave paintings of hunters in southern Europe; to marble representations of gods, heroes, lions and horses by Greek, Etruscan and Roman sculptors; to the religious icons of the Renaissance masters. And it has continued to fascinate generations of painters and sculptors throughout the centuries.

“Red Bull With Golden Blaze,” 20"H by 12"W by 8"D
Artist Carl Dahl remembers as a child finding in the desert a small, broken replica of “Discobolus,” Myron’s famed statue of a discus thrower. “That Greek form that influenced the Renaissance artists, really caught my eye,” he says. Another strong memory is of the many horses he grew up with. “As a kid, you’re always looking up at a horse. Its legs are really long, and you’re trying to figure out how to get up there. And its head is really far away, so it looks smaller. But you always notice the arch of its neck.”

These details, minute facets that are often overlooked, stuck with Dahl, and now, many years later, manifest in his own creations—porcelain sculptures of horses and human figures, or angels as he calls them. Revealing the influence of a classical aesthetic, the pieces are cracked and stained with rust; their bodies are broken and incomplete, seemingly fragile yet powerful in spirit. Some are unadorned, their bone-white forms projecting an innocent allure; others exhibit regal strength thanks to the addition of bold, colorful glazes and shimmering touches of gold leaf. Their contorted and abstracted silhouettes are contemporary and individualistic while still showing a debt to the past.

Dahl’s home serves as a display for his works of art. In the family room, three “Guardian Angels,” 22"H by 18"W by 8"D each, share space with the sculptor’s newer, life-size pieces, “Studies For the Three Graces,” 34"H by 18"W by 15"D each. The landscape painting is by Greg West.
“Carl is very versed in classical sculpture and the classical studies,” says Agnese Udinotti, owner of Udinotti Gallery in Old Town Scottsdale and founder of the Udinotti Museum of Figurative Art in Paradise Valley. She first met Dahl when he was still in high school and she was working at a gallery on Main Street in Scottsdale. “Then he went to ASU, got a bunch of degrees and became involved in business,” she notes.

After receiving degrees in philosophy, finance and business, Dahl worked his way up the ladder at Ramada Inc., eventually becoming a vice president of the company. “I have always enjoyed working with my hands, but my family really encouraged more professional pursuits,” he says. “The business world was simply a way to pay the bills, but I’ve always had this inner drive to make art.” After leaving Ramada, he returned to ASU and got a degree in sculpture, followed by another in computer information systems. It wasn’t much longer before his passion for creating took over.

“Icarus,” 24"H by  12"W by 8"D, pays homage to one of Dahl's favorite Greek myths. “I really identify with the story of reaching for more but getting too close to the sun,” he says.
Udinotti remembers the moment as if it was yesterday. “After I opened my own gallery, he would come in and buy little things here and there. He was always immaculately dressed—the three-piece suit, the tie, the polished shoes,” she recalls. “Then one day he came in—torn jeans, hair uncombed, a bit disheveled—and he said ‘Agnese, I have something to show you.’” It was his first sculpture—a bronze head—half Native American, half white. “I’m not into social commentary,  I'm more into human commentary, but technically it was perfect,” Udinotti adds.  

She encouraged Dahl to continue sculpting, promising him an exhibition, and in 1990, his art was introduced at the gallery, which has continued to represent him for almost three decades.

These days, Dahl works out of his home in Goodyear, sculpting his porcelain figures at his dining room table. An allergy put an end to most of his bronze dealings. The pieces are fired in a kiln on his back porch. Strongly influenced by the work of such greats as Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti and Eugène Delacroix, Dahl’s sculptures have a timeless appeal, appearing as though they were snatched straight from one of Europe’s grand art museums.

Dahl’s smaller sculptures often feature wood bases crafted from 100-year-old walnut gunstock. The painting is by Jim Pile, one of Dahl’s former art professors at ASU.
Ranging in size from tabletop to life-size, Dahl’s angels, most of which are winged, recall the iconic sculpture “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” some struggling to break free from earthly bindings wrapped around their bodies. Muscles ripple, ligaments twist, and tendons bulge as the figures bend and contort in a battle that is left to the viewer’s imagination.

The wings are an aesthetic addition. Even in school, Dahl would go through art books and draw wings on human images. “They just looked wrong to me without wings,” he says. “Most figures are straight up and down. The wings provide something akin to a horizon line. Compositionally, I think it works—it’s almost like reaching for something else, something beyond our own state of being.”

Nancy Serwint, associate professor of art history at ASU, notes, “When I look at Carl’s work, I think of the Renaissance, particularly the late Renaissance. With his angels, I think of Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves. There’s a writhing contortion of a spirit that’s struggling, and I think Carl captures that feeling. He’s got the soul of an ancient, a Periclean man.”

“Red Horse With Arched Neck,” 22"H by 12"W by 8"D, is finished with an oxblood glaze. “It's a beautiful color,” notes Dahl. “It works with the rust in a magical way.”
Udinotti describes Dahl’s work as figurative expressionism. “The figure is still the common denominator, but it’s not a realistic portrayal. It is something very expressionistic because it shows more emotion rather than visual reality,” she says. “He starts with a classical representation of the body, and then he breaks it and twists it.”

His horses, as well as the occasional bull, are dignified and elegant with long lines, narrow heads and legs that are elongated and imagined as the shattered clay gives way to exposed steel armatures. Like the angels, their look is classical, informed as much by the compelling horse of Selene, a fragment from the Parthenon that is now found in the British Museum, as it is by the western steeds of his childhood.

“It’s actually much easier to make horses than it is to make human figures. The neck and the back—there’s just a natural rhythm to them,” says Dahl. “I enjoy the angels, but there’s a gravity to them that speaks more about mortality and striving for knowledge, whereas the horses are just magnificent beings.

“Horses are more grounded. They’re about the terrestrial experience, the adventure of being on a powerful animal, the freedom to move around and explore. The angels are more about spirituality and intellectual challenge,” he adds. “When I sculpt horses, there’s a lighter mood about it. With angels, the feeling is more somber.”

“Tahoe,” 44"H by 32"L by 18"W, is one of Dahl's iconic pieces. The sculpture graces the cover of the artist's self-published book, “The Big Red Horse.”
Building upon steel armatures, Dahl works quickly and deftly, his hands, after years of practice, effortlessly mold the clay and allow the artist’s emotions to shine through. As the figures take shape, the water from the clay evaporates. To keep their pieces moist and prevent cracking, most artists will cover their projects when they’re not working on them. But Dahl encourages the formation of cracks, which give his sculptures a distinctive appearance that recalls ancient artifacts. The wetness also interacts with the steel armature, causing it to rust and resulting in the appearance of reddish-orange stains on the clay.

“The more metal you use, the more cracking and rust you’ll have,” says Dahl. “I can control it to a certain extent, but sometimes it results in very pleasant surprises.” He recalls a former student of his—he also teaches sculpture and other art classes at Yavapai College in Prescott—who, while working on a sculpture, became upset when it started to crack and rust. “Other students said the effect was beautiful—that it opened up the form and let us see into the soul of the piece.”

Rust stains caused by a metal armature are expecially conspicuous on “Horse With Head Toward the Sun,” 23"H by 14"W by 8"D.
Like his influences Giacometti and Rodin, Dahl’s creations are at once picture-perfect representations of human and animal bodies and abstracted forms. Constantly referencing anatomy books and calling on skills learned in figure drawing classes, Dahl begins with his subject’s true form. “It’s important to know what’s right before you can push it to something exaggerated,” he says. “Take for example the collar bone. My students will often craft it as a straight line, but if you feel it, there’s a curve to it. You need to know the basics, the subtle details, so when you change them, there’s logic to it.

 “Rodin’s sculptures are great examples,” he continues. “His famous statue ‘Age of Bronze’ was so perfect that he was accused of using a body mold. But then you look at ‘The Thinker,’ and the proportions change. The hands and feet are too big, but they work because of Rodin’s understanding of the basic anatomy underneath it.”

Dahl uses a kiln set up on his back porch to fire his clay pieces. The slow-ramp process enhances the cracking and turns the clay bone-white.
It’s this same play between realism and abstract expressionism in his own sculptures that has garnered Dahl fans around the globe. Daniel Britton, professor of art at ASU, wrote in a review of Dahl, “The true significance of any artwork rests in its ability to offer the viewer something new to ‘see’ or ‘feel’ conceptually or formally every time they encounter the work. This is a concept that is evident only in the work of the finest artists of this or any era. Carl Dahl is a contemporary artist whose work has these qualities in abundance.”

For Dahl, however, his work is less about collecting accolades than it is about putting a piece of himself into the world. “We all have this thing that we’re trying to get out and express,” he says. “Since language fails me, I leave it to my hands to do that. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to create something that makes you happy.”

Dahl's lifelong passion and reverence for horses—revealed in a childhood photo—is evident in his sculptures, which he sometimes coats in a cobalt glaze.

He says, “I just love horses. I love being around them, I love the smell of them, I love riding them.”
Genuine 23-karat gold leaf adds metallic luster to statues of a horse and a bull. “The horse is about adventure, while the bull is about power,” says Dahl. The painting in the background is by Jeff Bertoncino.

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