Concrete Abstractions

Joe Mancuso's work has always been about subtlety rather than grand gesture. For years, the Houston artist has painstakingly transformed basic materials such as wood, brick and concrete into abstract shapes -- triangles, ellipses and cubes -- that radiate a serene confidence. The sculptures' seductive qualities stem partly from Mancuso's keen sense of relations -- the relation between material and form.

Unfortunately, Mancuso's work had begun to look increasingly like a dry, formal exercise; his minimal geometry no longer extracted maximum emotion from the viewer. But with its latest show, the Glassell School of Art seems to have given new life to Mancuso's work, exciting his imagination and restoring the insight that has sparked his art: the awareness that the most powerful sculpture always expresses some sort of existential gawkiness, an eerie and lovable effect that reminds us what it's like to be human.

In "Posttension: A Compelling Refinement by Joe Mancuso," the artist carries forward the formal experiments of abstract sculpture, putting a quirky spin on modernist concerns with texture, color, materials, geometry and repetition. His four installations are a tough mix of aesthetic refinement and intuitive chutzpah, but they also work hard for pleasure.

Made of concrete, they bring to mind the not-so-distant times when tinkering and basic craftsmanship were necessary to daily life. The incredibly time-consuming, labored part of his craft is clearly a joyful element of Mancuso's work; by committing so much time to the work, he's able to make the abstract, mathematical pieces seem intensely personal.

Mancuso is altogether marvelous in the pieces of pumped-up scale -- edgy works that get under the skin with a disquieting authority. Pretty Triangle is composed of 325 concrete cylinders, each six inches by 12 inches long, and stacked on their sides in horizontal rows to form a 12-foot monument. The cylinders show pits, chips, grooves and handwritten scrawls; these hints of industrial use are paired with painted surfaces to create a perky daisy pattern. The work is caught between conceptual simplicity and visual complexity, between order and disorder. "Posttension" literally refers to the tension applied to steel reinforcing rods in cured concrete, but it also applies to the sculpture's power. Although the two cylinders at the bottom corners are bolted together and anchored to the floor, the stacked concrete looks precarious. Walking around the piece, you feel insecure, at risk, in danger.

For One Dozen Studs, two-by-fours are vertically aligned at 16-inch intervals. The concrete molds emulate standard wooden studs; there are knots, "wood" grain and nail holes. The effect is of looking at a wall turned inside out.

In Screen, Mancuso again subverts the viewer's expectations. Charcoal rubbings of decorative concrete block on newspaper cover an entire wall. The viewer looks through each "florette" to read the Houston Chronicle's stock index and classified section -- much as you'd peer through a barrier of concrete blocks to see the landscape beyond.

Equally mesmerizing are the hundreds of crumbly spore shapes that spread with labyrinthine intricacy. In Water Lilies, handfuls of wet concrete have been dropped and allowed to dry, then flipped over. They don't defy gravity so much as make a temporary peace with it. As you move around their large oval base, every slight shift causes the piece to change remarkably. Facets are consumed; facets multiply.

There's a striking connection between the time Mancuso spent on his work -- pouring, measuring, stacking -- and the time the viewer, too, must spend; your responses to the pieces have much to do with appreciating the care and fine tuning that have gone into them. And therein rests Mancuso's gift: to temper the aloofness of his forms with human touch.

"Posttension: A Compelling Refinement by Joe Mancuso," is on view through October 25 at the Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose, 639-7500.


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