Skip to main content
Close Search

Van Buren makes South Dakota debut with 'Material Witness'

The South Dakota Art Museum is showcasing “Richard Van Buren: Material Witness,” where visitors have the chance to view sculptures made of synthetic materials that dynamically engage with organic forms, forces and aesthetics. The exhibit opened Jan. 12 and runs through May 20.

Van Buren has been creating abstract sculptural artwork for more than 50 years. His work has been in art exhibits across the country and overseas. He taught at the School of Visual Arts, New York, from 1967-1988, and at Parsons School of Design, New York, from 1988-2001. “Material Witness” is Van Buren’s first exhibit in South Dakota. More than 20 pieces are displayed in the show.

Van Buren, who lives in Perry, Maine, makes sculptures primarily out of two different types of plastic materials: poured polyester resin and thermoplastic.

Polyester resin is a clear liquid that solidifies through the use of hardening agents. Van Buren pours the resin into molds made from sheets of Mylar. He then inserts pure pigments into the resin. This process allows him to get a range of translucent and opaque colors. He also embeds other materials like fiberglass, shells, feathers, glitter and crushed bits of consumer materials to create interesting textures.

Thermoplastic comes in sheets and pellets that soften and can be fused with heat and harden when they are cooled. “In my studio, I have a couple burners and I have a 55-gallon tub of water,” said Van Buren. “I boil the water, put the pellets inside and manipulate it from that point.”

Van Buren said the works’ inspiration comes from his childhood, when he was interested in the way nature could move and change solid objects. He later realized his current artwork has the same type of process.

“When I was a little kid, I spent time when I was by myself playing in mud creating rivers and dams,” Van Buren said. “I would use the hoes and a bucket of water to watch the earth change and then put little things in it and watch them move.”

Jodi Lundgren, the South Dakota Art Museum coordinator of exhibitions, said Van Buren’s unique artwork is why she invited him to exhibit.

“It was exciting for him to come out,” Lundgren said. “He’s taking materials and trying to allow them to act whatever kind of organic way is intrinsic to them and he brings this out of the materials.”

South Dakota Art Museum has been named as one of the 25 Best Art Museums or Galleries by American Art Awards. Located in Brookings, the museum offers free admission and free parking. For more information, visit