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Plastic Jesus

With his poetic kitsch gods, Paul Kittelson is one of Houston's most important artists

But neither does Kittelson ignore historical allusions; rather, he deftly reconciles a multitude of art traditions. In his work we see Rodin's improbable combination of unity and fragmentation, the psychological currents of George Segal's life-size plaster casts, Jackson Pollock's Expressionist skeins of paint and Lynda Benglis' spiky wax lozenges. Kittelson disguises his debts well, using his broad knowledge of art history and firm grasp of materials to create a highly personal vision. His art reaches back to the Greek ideal of classical beauty, but could just as easily signify a cyber-world from which all humanity has been drained.

Kittelson's recent sculpture addresses the body and imagination so directly that the physical intuitions behind it seem more clairvoyant than analytical. To walk around these mythic figures is to react reflexively. You can feel in your muscles a tug of mimicry as you study each sculpture's bearing. Kittelson makes his humanity quite visible in his intense concern with images -- images involved with organic, liquid phenomena; images involved with flesh and physicality; images that range from tender touch to charred, black fury. Color, structure, image, material and process are experienced as one. What results are bodies that have their own souls, presence and physical space -- bodies that spirits enter, occupy and, sometimes, abandon.

As a group, the sculptures exude a powerful theatricality, rich with the kind of metaphorical layering Kittelson habitually creates. Integrating the present with a pre-cultural past and a post-human future, "The Lesser Gods" is equal parts archaeological dig and formalist exploration; it suggests that conscious thinking is as embedded in one's skeletal structure as it is grounded in one's brain. His work gives voice to fundamental fears of mortality and suffering, but it avoids the risks of transforming the body into brute material.

Paul Kittelson's "The Lesser Gods of Earth" will show through July 25 at Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom, 863-7097.

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