The Small and the Dreadful

Two exhibits delve into the size and terror of the human condition

What we feel in relation to something monumental is not the same as what we might feel were the same thing diminished considerably. In the small, there is a closeness with the object that cannot be experienced otherwise. This is especially true in sculpture, where reduction in size helps a work become personal. The intimate gesture becomes charged with a voyeuristic energy that invites close examination. We experience the piece less with awe than with wonderment, pleasure and even pain. Because of its smaller dimension we can change its placement if we wish, and with little effort. A work can take on other appearances, offering new insights, perhaps even unlocking a hidden meaning.

This manipulation of scale alters not only the physical but also the psychological conditions of our perceptions and engenders a kind of imaginative projection which allows us to "enter" the space of the work. The artist's choice and use of materials often stress metaphorical possibilities that draw us to the center of the piece itself. If small sculpture is filled with elements of ambiguity more tantalizing than those found in large sculpture, it is perhaps because the dual power of matter and form becomes more acute in the small object. Human emotions become condensed with bold authority. By reducing the size, the object projects a feeling of greater potential.

At Inman Gallery, the ways in which many sculptors are reinvestigating the qualities of the intimate scale object has become -- as Alice remarked during her own inquiry into things small -- curiouser and curiouser. Comprised of an array of materials and forms mounted directly on the walls, placed on pedestals or grouped on a large work table, Inman Gallery's playful exhibition resembles an exotic garden cum experimental laboratory. Some pieces seem to explore the quizzical moment when amorphous blobs become sensual forms yearning for release; some forms seem to exist in a transitory state, hovering between the abstract and the figurative, man-made and natural, solid and liquid. There is a fossilized, archaeological quality to a number of the objects. A few appear as if they have been excavated from some prehistoric site. They could be ritual objects or talismans of some ancient culture, one more closely linked to nature than our contemporary world. Still other pieces have the look of enlightened technology, while at the same time conveying a sense of mysterious primordiality. These objects seem to curl in on themselves, like strange creatures trying to contain their vital force. Taken as a whole, the spare physicality of the works belies their disquieting multivalency. They are tense, art-historical hybrids: constructivist precision and devotion to materials, conceptual patience, post-minimalist nonchalance via organic expressivity and kitsch iconography.

All shimmer and dazzle, Lynda Benglis' gold sculpture Ghost Dance lures you into the gallery, speaking of the allure of beauty and of its manipulative power. Poised on a pedestal, the gloppy, yet seemingly animated configuration evokes associations at once crude and sophisticated, timeless and timely. Unabashedly, if purposefully decorative, the silicon bronze with gold leaf looks, well, so gold -- the gold of spray paint and candy wrapper foils, the brassy gold of faux jewelry and "elegant" accessories.

The centerpiece of the main gallery, and the show, is a waist-high work table with objects that reflect just how little physical evidence is needed to convey ideas about the human condition. Arranged around Bill Davenport's cracked and eroded concrete "die" are Susan Rothenberg's severed cast iron foot bearing down upon a dog's head, Jennie Couch's "vegetal" stoneware and Sharon Engelstein's polyurethane foam and fiberglass biomorphic forms, which look oddly like toy telephone receivers or, then again, like items from a mail-order sex catalog. Alongside these objects are cast aluminum forms by Engelstein that are at once evocative of African totems, surgical instruments and over-designed, postmodern ice cream scoops.

This tabletop display's erotic, playful tone extends to Linda Ridgway's bronze Seed -- a nine-inch-long peach pit with crevices that's suggestive of brain matter -- and to Kirk McCarthy's clay anatomical forms with protruding valves. Vague allusions to sexual fixations turn up uncomfortable psychic truths in Tracy Hicks' assemblage On Virginity, which juxtaposes a bronze apple sliced to reveal seed, veins and flesh; a small Bible opened to Corinthians; and transfers of pages from an old etiquette book. Still other works installed throughout the small gallery evoke references to voodoo or Santeria ritual. Consider Patricia Forrest's tiny bronze chicken heart and snake tail or Ridgway's three bronze "horns" that protrude from a wall at waist height. Their eerie, three-point shadows have just as much presence as the forms themselves, summoning forth visions disembodied spirits, even trophies. Similarly, Forrest's bronze braids of human hair are hung on a wall like powerful amulets. Unraveled, splayed open or tightly bound, the braids look as if they'd been burned, chewed up or dragged through mud. And Engelstein's collection of severed thumbs and fingers -- which stand on end or lay flat like specimens -- is jokey and horrific, including as it does chocolate thumbs, bubble-gum pink soap fingers that look like chess pieces and a mutant double-finger variety carved in wax.

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