I have been puzzling over Jim Osman’s sculptures ever since I first saw them a few years ago in an exhibition that was too crowded for me to really see what they were doing. I knew there was something special about them without knowing exactly what. 

Sculptures need space no matter their size, and this is particularly true of Osman’s works, which invite scrutiny, even as their complex structures encourage viewers to look at them from all sides, as some possess nooks and crannies that are not the main focus of the works. At the same time — and this really struck me — Osman seems, for the most part, uninterested in exploring one of sculpture’s central tropes: the column, stack, or pile. There are parts that he stacks, but this too is not the central focus of the pieces. 

Another thing that got my attention is their scale. We think of sculpture in human terms, from diminutive to monumental, from Joseph Cornell and Charles Simonds to Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero. Osman’s works do not quite fit into this spectrum. In fact, they seem at odds with their size, which I think is another reason why they are not better known. We cannot quite reconcile our physical relationship to them partially because they seem to blur the line between functional and aesthetic object. 

Installation view of Jim Osman: Walnut: Second Series at McKenzie Fine Art. Foreground: “Vas” (2019), wood, paint, and cast paint, 17 1/2 x 16 x 11 3/4 inches (courtesy McKenzie Fine Art)

The quality of not quite knowing how to place Osman’s work within the history of sculpture ought to be a starting point. That feeling only got stronger after I saw the exhibition Jim Osman: Walnut: Second Series at McKenzie Fine Art (March 2-April 3, 2022). Osman teases out the relationship between surface and thing, between wood grain (or knothole) and the framing shape, or establishes a tonal relationship between the paint’s and the wood’s color. The only other sculptor I can think of who explored the relation between a thing’s patterned surface and its form is Minoru Niizuma, whose work is included in a recent show I curated, The Unseen Professors at Tina Kim Gallery.

By bringing together aspects of playground architecture, multi-level stage sets, movable screens, fences, furniture, and painting, and infusing his constructions with whimsy, wonderment, and keen attentiveness to surfaces and materiality, Osman achieves something distinct. His sculptures exist somewhere between open enclosures and platforms in which the support and the object are equally important, as are all the surfaces, including the edges. His work is certainly not like any other sculpture being celebrated in museums or the marketplace — rather than manipulating the materials, and underscoring his dominance over them, Osman appears to let his materials dictate his responses. 

Jim Osman, “Lectern” (2021), wood, paint, and copper, 55 x 13 x 6 inches (photo by Christian Nguyen, courtesy McKenzie Fine Art)

For one part of “Charme” (2020, wood, plaster, and paint, 19 1/2 by 9 by 12 1/2 inches), Osman aligns five strips of wood according to their circular rings, placing them at different heights. This causes some of the lines to unfurl across all the strips, each of which has been stained a slightly different color, ranging from mustard yellow to brown. How might we characterize this aspect of “Charme”? Is it a drawing or an example of nature drawing? 

Once you notice these visual rhymes and echoes, others become apparent, such as the loose alignment of knotholes on larger wood boards. When I thought about how the piece would look enlarged, I recognized that the size of the knotholes was a determining factor in the scale. Osman seemed to cut some pieces in order to center or frame the knothole. 

Different kinds of relationships are established in Osman’s works, in their wood grain and color. Many of the pieces are on shelves jutting from the wall, with enough space between them that viewers can walk around and closely examine them. He shares with Donald Judd and Robert Ryman, for example, an attention to how things are joined; the hardware is visible and integral to the work. 

Installation view of Jim Osman: Walnut: Second Series at McKenzie Fine Art. Left: “K Truss” (2021), wood, paint, brass, and hardware, 45 x 22 x 29 inches. Right: “Charme” (2020), wood, plaster, and paint, 19 1/2 x 9 x 12 1/2 inches (courtesy McKenzie Fine Art)
Jim Osman, “Charme” (2020), wood, plaster, and paint, 19 1/2 x 9 x 12 1/2 inches (photo by Christian Nguyen, courtesy McKenzie Fine Art)

In “Pink Fade” (2021, wood and paint, 11 1/2 by 13 1/2 by 14 inches), Osman joins three planar structures at right angles, edge to edge, enabling the sculpture to stand on its own while moving through space. By painting one side of two of the planar structures, he sets up a dynamic between smooth, painted surface and aligned wood grain and unpainted surface (between line and color). There is no didactic intent behind his decision to paint one side and not the other. 

Osman’s interest in the two sides of a plane shares something with the work of Anthony Caro, the British sculptor who was once thought to have superseded David Smith but is no longer in favor. Whether he was inspired by Caro or not makes no difference to me, as the unlikely association serves as reminder of how quickly and easily people conform to the prevailing taste. 

Osman, to his credit, seems to have rejected the need to work big. This is not to say he is a miniaturist, because “Lectern” (2021) is 55 inches in height. He is sensitive to wood grain patterns, color, and surface. He uses OSB, a kind of particleboard, along with other types of finer natural wood. He tends to cut the wood into only planar shapes. In addition to paint and hardware, he uses plaster and colored paper. As the exhibition’s title conveys, Osman’s interest in wood is also driven by its varieties; walnut is an American hardwood that has unique patterns and is easy to shape. 

Jim Osman, “Screen” (2021), wood, paint, and cast paint, 9 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 8 inches (courtesy McKenzie Fine Art)

Are Osman’s sculptures visions of cities, stage sets, or designs for a playground? Is it necessary to be able to name them in order to appreciate them? There is a lot to unpack in the pieces and the way they he works with paint and wood grain, applied and natural color, as well as how he questions the boundaries separating painting from sculpture. Might we not see the framed orange, yellow, and blue rectangle in “Marquee” (2021, wood, paint, and paper, 62 by 16 1/2 by 17 inches) as an affectionate nod to minimalist geometric painting? Do you see it as having a front and back, like a highway billboard? What does that tell you? Osman’s care for and attention to his modest materials, the particularities of their identity, is rare in a society where excess is celebrated daily.

Jim Osman: Walnut: Second Series continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 3. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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