Review: The Art of Donal Hord Print E-mail

donal_hord(Written June 1999)

Romancing the Stone and the Wood

It is one of the more curious inclinations of artists: Why is it that some choose media to work in which is antithetical to their natures? Take Donal Hord. San Diego’s most famous sculptor was stricken with rheumatic fever as a boy and brought by his mother to semi-arid Southern California to recuperate. Here he survived, studying sculpture with Anna Valentien, but lived a subdued life, unable to go to school, his heart forever weakened. With the aid of Homer Dana, Hord’s lifelong assistant, the sculptor chose to contend with nature’s hardest materials—rosewood, diorite, the hardest form of granite and obsidian, or volcanic glass. Hord won, and easily it seems, creating human figures, at times, delicate and fanciful, at other times, massive and obdurate. How curious indeed that his frailty as a man lives on unechoed in his vigor as an artist.

Hord lived in San Diego most of his life, adorning the city with a dozen public statues and reliefs. Among the most notable are the two "Literature Panels" (1953) which, in cast stone, flank the entrance to the downtown library. Here depicted in ten-foot relief is the history of the book, its scribes and its readers, in Eastern and Western cultures. Hord honored the library because he had spent so much time there reading, forced to remain inactive. Another famous monument is the granite "Guardian of Water" (1937-39) in which a beautiful woman, draped in pleated cloth, cradles a jug of water to her head. The work faces the San Diego Bay from its perch before the County Administration Building. Finally, San Diego’s premiere sculptor is being honored this summer, 33 years after his death, with a full retrospective. The 90 works at the San Diego Historical Society, on display June to October 1999, are entitled "Transforming the Solid."

A gifted child, Hord began creating watercolors at 13 and terra cotta figures at 16. In the seasonal warmth of San Diego, he was captured by the native people, the Indian and Mexican, who—in Hord’s idealization—possessed a solidity of body that matched their labor and their natural beauty. These traits personified for him a core vitality he wanted to sculpt. After learning bronze casting, which he returned to infrequently, he tried obsidian and made the magnificent "Tlaloc" (1928-29). This is Hord’s impression of the rain god whose body struggles to rise and yet is beaten down by the torrents it has unleashed. Tlaloc in Nahuatl (or Aztec) means "He who makes the plants sprout." Hord presses the fertility god to the ground with an almost tortured magnetic weight.

Although best as a carver of wood and diorite, Hord did several fine bronzes. The early "Stand and Bowl" (1926-27) features a circle of four direction-facing Aztec men, their headdresses holding up a scallop-shaped bowl. The equality of the men is intentional: The one is the many. Compared to the personality of the rain god, these figures have no individuality, only a purpose—to serve. Hord seemed more attracted to the anthropomorphic gods which, as he matured, marks his individuality as a sculptor—the higher the figural idea, the more individual the depiction.

Rosewood, mahogany, and lignum vitae, or wood with interlocking grains, were his favorite media to carve. The main finished difference between rosewood and lignum vitae (surely for sculpting there must be acute differences in their malleability) is the grain pattern. Rosewood has a recurring, undulating, concentric ring pattern while the lignum is unpredictable, dark and blotchy. Lignum is wood from which bowling balls are made. Hord’s wood sculptures range over his entire career and feature real, mythic and abstract renditions of human corporeality.

"Young Maize" (1931), in Mexican rosewood, shows a standing Indian wearing a cloak and pants, and a spiritual hush. The wood grain moves in radiating patterns over the figure’s pronounced musculature: Hord emphasizes—or discovers—the grain, bringing a surface motility to the piece which contrasts brilliantly with the prayerful figure receiving it. "Desert Sunrise" (1932) is an even leaner upright figure but now with arms raised and parted to reveal a louvered gown, bands of fabric alternating with bands of skin. The effect is mesmerizing: The body quivers behind the gown, and the figure seems to be ascending.

In the 1930s Hord along with most American artists proposed work for WPA projects and, like Diego Rivera, depicted the native and his labor. Hord created many fine mahogany reliefs that capture this noble worker. "Indigenas" (1933) comprises two mahogany door panels. One panel is the male figure, a dog at his feet, the other is the female, with children peeking out from behind her skirt. However, in this paean to equality, both are surrounded by tall, harvestable crops. "Chumash Fisherman" (1930) is one of a series of reliefs showing Santa Barbara natives at work. Here the man pulls a triangular net toward his hand-covered genitals, emphasizing the fount of the male hunter-gatherer.

An especially fine piece is "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" (1939-1941) in black diorite. Here a woman with a tightly bundled baby rests upon the swayback of a crouching donkey. Behind them is a vine-covered stele. The green-black rock enshrines the resting figures. We’re not sure what part of the journey it is—more toil, though, lies ahead.

With several WPA commissions, Hord continued to sculpt realistic figures, on larger scales. But despite the verity, the work still holds great contemplative strength which transcends the mere travail of the people. After the war, Hord left the literal designation of native imagery and entered a more symbolic realm. And yet, no matter his intent, Hord’s faces always reveal the native—half-shut eyes, large noses, thin lips, perhaps an amalgam of cultures, an every man or woman. Indicative of this symbolic-cum-human figure is "Thunder" (1945) in dark green jade. The native figure slaps his drum; the bottoms of his feet touch; his legs bend out in a rakish akimbo. Hord both frees and concentrates the figure’s supernatural power.

For me, the most brilliant pieces of the exhibit are the eleven full figures in rosewood or lignum vitae. Each are four-feet tall with a diameter of no more than eighteen inches. Not only are these magnificent in their imaginative representations of the human-god-ideal, but they are also carvings of incredible craftsmanship, detail, poise and execution. The hard wood and play of the grains makes them solid while their daring height makes them rise; they are strongly grounded yet their figural elements curve and dance within the allotted space; there’s vertical bravura as if limiting the circumference challenged Hord to attempt a near-impossible pose.

"Harvest Spirit" (1951) shows an Algonquin native with wild rice at the base, corn stalks over his shoulder and cumulus clouds rising from his head. "Nagual in Moonlight" (1961) is a painfully thin dancing figure, whose flurry of Shiva-like moves is mirrored at his feet by a jaguar on its hind legs. The most stunning rosewood piece is "Day of the Judases" (1963). A pensive figure is bedeviled by a chaotic sheath of masks on his back which either he’s collected or they’ve appeared, an unconscious appendage. The latter seems right: He’s thinking them into existence and, now that they’ve arrived, his evil plan emerges: "Which mask will grace my next betrayal?"

Of the best lignum vitae carvings is "Midday Sun or Noon Sun" (1942). Here the male figure sits on top of a ram’s head which itself rests on four direction-facing eagle masks. Hord’s achieves a remarkable bit of vertical motion by having the man swing his right arm aloft while he holds his left down in full extension. The burl-grained lignum, an antagonistic mix of green and brown, weighs down’s this sun’s expressive power.

Finally, there’s the sensual beauty of "El Cargador" (1956), or the charcoal hauler. In its literalness, the figure seems to be any charcoal hauler with a hood to keep his head and eyes free of soot. And yet his exquisitely toned body is caught in an arrogant pose that takes us far beyond a simple ode to his labor. Again, we see the sculptor idealizing the healthy, outdoor native, perhaps because Hord’s own poor health made him desire that which he could never have.