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Art: The Third Dimension

Crocheted, stitched or etched in Sheetrock, sculpture assumes new identities in current shows

By way of hackneyed intro, a classic definition of sculpture: "The art or practice of creating three-dimensional figures or designs, as by chiseling marble, modeling clay or casting in metal." We might want to update that definition to include "crocheting yarn," "pinning paper" and "casting in rubber." With the 18th International Sculptural Conference set to launch this week, sculpture-based shows are spreading like kudzu. In many of these exhibitions, artists and curators render irrelevant the traditional definitions of sculpture, expanding our perceptions of it to encompass "anything remotely 3-D."

Curated by Mary Ross Taylor, "Limp" is a crowded but conceptually interesting show at the tiny and infrequently open Bruce Mauldin MFA on Fairview. Resisting the traditional concepts of sculpture as massive, rigid and permanent, Taylor's "Limp" is filled with, as the title suggests, the insubstantial, soft and impermanent. Elizabeth McGrath's Curdled (1998), for example, is a decidedly flaccid hanging sculpture. An old white cotton blanket is cut to a narrow strip with the fabric at the bottom sewn into lumpy, dimensional shapes. The title is apt, as the vertical shape of the sculpture conjures up the image of curdled milk being poured from an invisible source. Additionally, the worn surface looks like it has endured its share of baby spit-up. Also operating on a visceral level, Kirk McCarthy's cast urethane rubber wall pieces suck you in with their tactile surfaces. Wave Bed 2 (1998) and Wave Bed 3 (1998) have gorgeous smooth, undulating and rippling surfaces; their translucent green and orange textures look like rectangular slabs of Jell-O.

Sarah Nix Ginn's pieces are constructed from commercial clothing patterns; these thin pieces of brown tissue paper are painted, stenciled and then studded with systematically grouped straight pins. Named after the pattern numbers, these works are floppy, strange and obsessive. 0808 (1999) has an elephantine trunk and a blobby body. 1616 (1999) is a cornucopia shape with a little beaver tail. There is a fragile, rustling quality to them; you know what they would sound like if you squashed them. And speaking of squashing, Justin Kidd's knitted and connected striped ball shapes are crammed into zippered clear vinyl bags like strange little forgotten craft projects. His objects are hidden in a corner or, in the case of Ouch (2000), stuck in a windowsill.

No health warning needed: Paul Kittleson lends permanence to ephemeral smoke rings 
with his circular tangles of steel wire.
Lawndale Art Center
No health warning needed: Paul Kittleson lends permanence to ephemeral smoke rings with his circular tangles of steel wire.

There's some nice work in the show, but it could have been edited down. The space is too small for everything. Ann Trask's hanging sewn Pellon-fabric columns are more interesting before you see the collaged quotidian elements on the surface. Most artists can identify with the "Ooh, I must be able to do something arty with all this junk mail" impulse, but they would have worked better without all the "To Resident" mass-mailing labels and the "Have you seen this child?" pictures. Judith Shamp's crochet and macramé bird's nest with dangling chicken vertebrae and feathers, while "limp," was a little too New Age shaman.

"Darn" is a needlework extravaganza curated by Bennie Flores Ansell in the remodeled upstairs gallery of Lawndale Art Center. It's a great title and contains strong work that's well installed, but I am ambivalent about that much crochet in one room. You find yourself becoming absorbed in the formal differences between pieces rather than the pieces themselves. However, "Darn" does prove that while there are still cultural associations with needlework, it has also become simply another tool for making art. When women first moved it into the fine-art realm, it was pigeonholed as feminist commentary; when men used it, it was for ironic commentary. Remember the reactions when former footballer Rosie Greer took to needlepoint? It's nice to see that this cool material is starting to be freed up from the automatic assumptions based on an artist's gender.

Still in his thirties, Bill Davenport could be called the grand old man of Houston crocheted sculpture. (It's no surprise that his works hang in both "Limp" and "Darn.") His George Stoll Grouping (1996) is named after another artist with an affection for the beauty of the mundane. White yarn is tightly and perfectly crocheted to create elegant minimalist shapes that individually encase plastic butter tubs and juice bottles; they also function as an absurd equivalent to the tea cozy. His Afghan Futon (1997) is a wonderfully cushy stack of found afghans. Their '70s-era earth tones and patriotic red, white and blue color schemes are nostalgic, and the handcrafted nature is a record of their makers' dedication and affection.

Tina Kotrla creates fuzzy, sparkly and evocative poufs, strings and dangles. What I Am and What I Am Not (2000) is tacked to the wall, its free-form shapes sprouting off a central crocheted string like mutant doilies. The work creates a whimsical line against the wall. Her furry mohair puffed floor sculptures have luscious titles such as Sugar Dumplin' (2000) and Pillow Blossom(2000). The objects are tender and witty. Kidd makes a return appearance here with bulbous and linked striped forms that are technically knitted, not crocheted. Suffocating vinyl bags are used here as well for these organic-feeling soft shapes.

Leave the multicolored wonderland of "Darn," and you walk downstairs into Lawndale's main gallery and into the more restrained neutral tones of "Frame," curated by Darryl Lauster and Dean Ruck. The works included were created specifically for the exhibition. Selected artists were all sent the same exact broad definitions of the word "frame" and were asked to create a work in response. Creating a piece around a theme can spark an exploration in new directions, or it can make the artist feel constricted. Risk is not a bad thing, and "Frame" seems to work for some of the artists. But with others, their works seem a little off.

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