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Art as Ecstasy

Three disarming and mesmerizing installations at DiverseWorks

To understand oneself and the place and time in which one lives and dreams, to make oneself not just more responsive to the visual world but more responsible in the real one -- these are among the humanist goals of "Projects," a show of site-determined works at DiverseWorks by three Texas artists. Each of the artists -- Mike Scranton, Thana Lauhakaikul and Margo Sawyer -- has constructed a space for meditative or spiritual reflection. The exhibit is at once elegiac and unnerving, as art and culture here cycle endlessly on an erratic orbit, shot through with the energy of organic and industrial materials, exuding a well-nigh disarming and mesmerizing appeal.

Acting as urban archaeologists of sorts, the artists combine the vitality and energy of both crude and formal materials as a process of questioning the value of life and nature in a disposable age. They focus principally on the relationship of human beings to the environment and mass culture, and the effects of that relationship on individuality, imagination and social control. Their work exposes a culture attracted to violence and degradation; it also questions the survival of freedom and humanity in an increasingly computerized era. Because nature is no longer as prevalent as it once was and religion is no longer as powerful, artists have turned to new interpretations of their natural environments congruent with the art and social circumstances of their own time.

Not surprisingly, the three installations emerge as primal and visceral surroundings. Immediate and experiential, their provocative environments investigate the junction of ruin and reclamation, natural decay and rejuvenation. Each artist manipulates the viewer's perception of the installation space to create metaphors dealing with ecological disasters, planetary extinction and the passage of time.

Mike Scranton's use of industrial refuse -- crushed automobile parts, engines, motor oil -- refers to a decomposing culture in which humanity itself is threatened. Known around Houston for his fantastical art cars, the former welder and oil-field worker from Kansas reaches into the collective unconscious to reveal both a whimsical fascination with and a cynical skepticism about the future. Scranton seems to suggest that collective incineration and extinction could come at any time, and without warning.

A rusted and burned-out four-legged creature with gaping "mouth" of steel and "innards" of fuel pumps and valves guards the loading dock at DiverseWorks. Its "soul" is an engine that roars with the power of a dragster. Part of Scranton's gut-clutching installation Highway to Hell, the beast combines the post-apocalyptic machinery of Mad Max and the Terminator.

Inside the gallery, however, Scranton has constructed the aftermath of such fascination, transforming the shells of cars into a lyrical chapel of wreckage. Perhaps the automobile is a synthesis of the metaphors of gender identification that post-industrial American culture has embraced. Worshipping her -- the automobile -- confers manhood on the acolyte. The ritual chant is a litany of cubic inches, fuel efficiency, horsepower and revolutions per minute. The power principle -- the engine -- is identified as masculine and adult. But the power is contained within and protected by the fluid sculptural body of the goddess, who is adorned with paint and chrome. The icon -- really, a synthesis of gender -- has been co-opted by men and used as a sacred object in a ritual rite of passage.

Surely the notion of fabricating a machine capable of generating such heat and light and power could move one to ecstasy; Scranton's installation holds symbolic clues for just this kind of transformation. Packed into the front gallery, Scranton's "chapel" looms fortresslike with its layers of crushed and punched car doors. Upon entering the chapel, one is immediately struck by the eerie glow emanating from the large cross fashioned from chrome bumpers (with bumper stickers "Lakewood Church, Oasis of Love" and "Estereo Latino 93.3 FM"). A huge vat of motor oil has been placed before the "altar" like some baptismal font. Looking into the steel drum, however, gives one the sensation of falling into a deep well or bottomless pit, thereby subverting and displacing one's experience of the chapel as a protective shelter. The smell of rancid oil, the electric guitar riffs and industrial humming from car speakers serve as counterpoints to the more delicate, spindly cross perched atop the steel rafters. Is the oil a sacred fluid? Or just more toxic waste polluting our lands and oceans? Is the chapel a secure and serene place of meditation? Maybe. But Scranton suggests that it's just as likely to be a steel cage, even a tomb.

For Thana Lauhakaikul, the emphasis on materialism and technology has removed humanity from the immediacy of nature and separated the individual from the inherent spirituality of the universe. Transition Containers, featuring grids of charcoal briquettes, mirrors and tiny sapling trees, reflects the outrage, remorse and pain that follows the apocalyptic destruction of nature and humanity. Lauhakaikul's installation gives tangible expression to the intensity of his emotions. But as a process of healing and rebirth, it maintains a sense of hope amidst feelings of alienation and sorrow. Upon entering the space, one is surrounded by row upon row of the charcoal's positive/negative configurations and their reflections. The yin-yang theme of perpetuity and flux in nature is emphasized by a coffin with an exterior of soft lumps of charcoal briquettes and containing a seemingly infinite grid of mirrors. The powerful sound component, ranging from hysterical laughter to pulsating electronic and dreamily romantic music, emanates from a black pouch dangling mid-air in each of the installation's four corners.

Lauhakaikul, a native of Thailand and a professor of sculpture at the University of Texas since 1977, uses the charcoal for its soft, refined shape that evokes both pillows and atomic clusters. Charcoal, a form of raw energy, is always in a state of flux. The quietly powerful installation serves to reconcile the nightmarish trauma of nuclear war, its indelible scars on the land and on the human psyche. Peering into the coffin's mirrored interior, we see ourselves as part of the environment, connecting with everything, continuing forever. Accordingly, Lauhakaikul treats both sound and time as spatial entities with interdependent physical presences. For him, the creative process is cathartic, a means to represent a memorial lament and a healing energy.

Although Margo Sawyer is also concerned with nature as subject, vehicle and source for inspiration, the sublime qualities inherent in her work have more to do with the properties of art itself. Her breathtaking assemblage of tonalities, geometric forms and richly sensuous surfaces moves the viewer to elevated states of being. Vessels is effective on an emotional level as well as a formal one; the union of these two elements -- feeling and intellect -- creates a sense of nobility, of past and present relationships. Raised in England and Africa, a graduate of Yale University, a former resident of India and currently chairman of UT's sculpture department, Sawyer investigates scientific and aesthetic venues that explore the evanescence of matter.

Vessels transforms the gallery into a sacred landscape, alluding to lost cultures and distant lands. Blue chalk lines evocative of tantric drawings form a labyrinthine system upon which Sawyer has strategically placed brass and steel dishes, much like coordinates of a map. One walks around the elliptic configuration in a process of continuous reassessment and perceptual contradictions. Sawyer approaches her art as a dialogue between creator and viewer representative of a holistic working order. Vessels lays before the viewer a complex field of sensuous elements, analogous to conducting a religious ceremony on sacred ground.

It's just this sort of otherworldliness that encourages the notion of duality in her work: the pull between the concrete and the illusory, the tactile and optical, the physical and the immaterial. At times, the gold objects and forms seem dropped to the ground from some constellation, their aureoles mediators between the iridescent blue shapes drawn on the gallery floor and the surrounding space. Their luminous surfaces invite touch, while the granular fragility (and vulnerability) of the blue ellipse and its inner labyrinth prohibits physical contact. Vessels exists as a hybrid of place and atmosphere, a dialectical experience in which the viewer is engaged as an integral entity amid the intermingling realms of poetry and science.

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