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Plastic Jesus

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

Raw, unrepentant and grisly, Paul Kittelson's provocative new series of life-size figures is simultaneously elegant, seductive and beautiful. His "The Lesser Gods of Earth," which is now showing at Hiram Butler Gallery, shows an insatiable taste for Gothic horror while exploring the invisible aspects of our inner beings.

Not since the Houston artist's huge dinosaur concocted from scavenged foam-rubber bedding and upholstery was installed on Montrose under the Southwest Freeway in the late '80s has Kittelson's work shown so much physical authority and depth of invention. It's as if the artist's understanding of sculpture has shifted into a newly visceral key, allowing him to address the most primal of human concerns. "The Lesser Gods of Earth" is based on the ancient Greek myths; its levels of meaning reveal a profound open statement on sexual desire, frustration, humor, tragedy and transcendence.

The figures recall the remains of some extinct civilization; they suggest fragments of Greek statuary or preserved Pompeiians caught in molten lava flow. But the sculptures also look like aliens left over from a sci-fi film. Using himself, his wife (artist Carter Ernst) and dancer friends as models, Kittelson balances the sense of casual, hands-on intimacy that has always characterized his work with the unexpected poetic interaction of such simple materials as chicken wire, plaster and pigment. With this particular body of work, Kittelson distinguishes himself as a sculptor by exploiting an impressive array of forms, textures and constellations of meaning. For although Kittelson's new work is figurative, it is not without abstract contemplation. While the sculptures follow an increasing movement toward formal aesthetics, Kittelson breaks down such concepts as portraiture, pattern and "finish fetish" with downright bawdy aspects.

The meanings and allusions in Kittelson's work are most clearly manifest in his processes and materials. Having transformed chicken wire into a structural armature, Kittelson mixed pigments into the plaster and threw the batches onto the skeletons. The random, gloppy effect seems geological and even suggests stalactites. The colors and patterns, which range from drab camouflages to fluorescent oranges, greens and blues, look by turns amoeba-like, crystalline and scabrous, resembling the remains of scorched or diseased skin. In contrast, the abstract "be-bop" pattern evokes '50s linoleum and textile designs.

The most successful pieces are those that make new combinations of internal and external figures, those that aim to make physical that which we usually internalize. Fragmentary Back, which looks like a turtle shell and is poised on a pedestal, entices you to stroke its rounded spine of smoothly patterned green, peach, yellow and black microbes even as you look down through the neck cavity filled with gooey protrusions and black tar-like viscera. Fragmentary Lower Body features a thick "lip" of plaster sensuously rolled over the waistline. Legs are webbed together, like those of a mermaid whose feet are turning into flippers. Curiously, the chain-link effect of the wire seemingly dissolves the form while the camouflage pattern redefines it. Peering into the cavernous body you see honeycomb structure of iridescent purple, orange and blue. By contrast, The Siren is a dense figure with stalactite-like forms dripping off the undersides of its arms. The legs of The Gorgon are splayed apart as the creature bends over to touch its foot. The camouflage pattern of green, red and peach lends a militaristic tone; the chain-link mesh forms a connective tissue or membrane between the legs.

Most breathtaking is The Diver, an elegant, streamlined figure suspended from the ceiling -- legs together, small buttocks, arms extended and hands crossed at the wrists. Looking up at the floating figure, you're seduced by the shimmery yellow and blue patterns evocative of a rippling pool of water. The backside of the figure is composed of a "charred" black and spiky armature. The effect is altogether serene, ravaged, luscious and fierce. The Diver could be a study of exquisite form or a window display from a store torn apart in a riot. The elements add up to a highly sophisticated and "decadent" aesthetic -- and a keen, unique art. Far from presenting outright kitsch (a la the David Adickes cello player), Kittelson keeps his edge and uses kitsch as a weapon to jam tradition -- the proverbial chip on the shoulder that must be built into any serious artistic consciousness. The kitsch also gives his sculptures a broad-based appeal, almost making them community icons, like the Christie's gun-fighting shrimp or the Stelzig's steer.

Nowhere is this use of kitsch as social and artistic comment more evident than in Kittelson's playful works outside in the gallery's lush garden. Don't miss Monument to the Suburban Landscape, positioned alongside the gallery deck and seemingly formed of black garbage bags. The illusion is so good that you'll think someone left the trash for garbage pick-up. But walk around the concrete bags and you'll find Mount Rushmore, with each bag a caricature of a president, and the implicit message that the Black Hills is a sacred Indian spot that America has graffitied. It's also an illusion of a mountain. And as Kittelson capably demonstrates, people love to be fooled.

Better still is the towering Recycled Virgin, which manages to give new resonance to an overworked theme. The icon comes to life through the hundreds of beer and soda-pop cans that fashion her cloak, robes and corona. At its base, a guardian angel (who's a dead ringer for Elvis) with wings of Sprite cans lifts the hem of her skirt. The Virgin's robes are composed of the silver aluminum insides of Coke cans; her cloak is made of green Sprites; her face and hands are created from A&W Root Beers; the corona is shaped by three rows of radiating Olympia and Miller beer cans. The Virgin's backside is made up entirely of severed doll's heads and limbs protruding from hardened foam because she is, according to Kittelson, the patron saint of unwed mothers. The overall effect is dazzling: when the sun hits it you'll need more than a few seconds to recover from the glare. Kittelson re-enlivens the icon by attuning it to the multiple descents of sculpture into real life, as opposed to following art history's narrow high road. In doing so, Kittelson makes a work of art that turns out to be far more real than most sculpture in connecting to the inner life of a community.

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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