Two solo shows at Devin Borden Gallery present work from established artists with very particular and ongoing fascinations. In "I like that very much a lot," Sharon Engelstein continues her surreal explorations of biomorphic forms. And in "Continued Conversation," Matthew Sontheimer offers another chapter in his longstanding preoccupation with text and language.
Engelstein presents ten strangely lovely ceramic sculptures in the front gallery. They're tabletop works around the size of a breadbox. In addition to glazed ceramic forms, many of the pieces include "whipped wax." Engelstein is apparently beating melted wax to make it foamy and chunky — a trick kitschy candle makers use to create candles that look like "foaming" beer mugs or "meringue" pie. The texture of the wax creates a satisfying contrast with the smooth ceramic surfaces; Engelstein has a sure hand with materials.
Rather than placing her objects in isolation on shelves or pedestals around the room, Engelstein has grouped them together on irregular stacks of white Styrofoam blocks. It's a stroke of genius. It's as if the objects were the inhabitants of some arctic island. The sculptures work well together, feeding off each other to convey their own odd reality.
That reality includes a blobby, cycloptic thing dubbed Feel Fine 1 (2012). A clump of frothy-looking wax erupts from the face (?) of it, and Engelstein embeds a reptilian-looking glass eye in its center. There's a Silly String-like tangle of "hair" on its head, and Fine is half-glazed in pale, pinkish beige. It's a not-quite-right flesh color that's a cross between plastic doll and cadaver. Engelstein has the ability to make her objects walk the line between cute and creepy.
Set more firmly in cute territory, Very Very (2012) is a fat, round form with a weighty, fleshy look. Two piggish ears poke up from the top, a matte, peachy glaze dripping over them like icing. The work reminds me of one of the cartoon pigs from Angry Birds.
Possibility is a little edgier. There is something about the sculpture that is sensual yet clinical — and kinda icky. It's got voluptuous blobs, a protruding phallic-looking cylinder and an indention with yellowish residue. The gleaming white ceramic calls to mind Duchamp's glazed porcelain urinal — and one of its well-used restroom equivalents.
Engelstein amps up the surreal in other works that sprout human ears or a child's foot. The sculptures all contain unlikely yet somehow interrelated elements. In grouping these pieces together, Engelstein draws you into the strangely engaging world she has created.
In the second gallery at Devin Borden, Sontheimer's works on paper require closer inspection if not a magnifying glass. His drawings from more than a decade ago were derived from his father's signature. In the current show, "Continued Conversation," the calligraphic lines are gone and the text has taken over. The collages are filled with the texts of "conversations" pasted on the page.
Horror vacui, the fear of empty space, overwhelms the work. The collages intentionally have the dense and obsessive surfaces associated with art made in a mental institution. A strain of the obsessive runs through a lot of art, and Sontheimer is richly cultivating it here. The pages are packed with tiny text, handwritten, printed, or even typed out in various sizes and styles of typeface and then pasted onto the paper. Lines, bits of color and the odd collaged image accent the irregular sections of text.
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The works are filled with snippets of an internal conversation. It's as if Sontheimer transcribed every thought he had while making work — about making work. Sontheimer pretends the discussion is between entities he dubs "the miner" and "the weigher." The miner "answers questions and weighs information," and "the weigher" mainly asks questions. If your near-distance eyesight is good enough, you can follow along through the often-minuscule text.
Sontheimer's wit is evident as he creates these conversations about the stuff that goes through an artist's head while he makes a work. In Three Season Porch (2012), he talks about the kinds of pencils he's using; "the weigher" declares, "Now that's a hell of a red, right?" which "the miner" concedes while elaborating on the red pencil's flaws — too soft and leaving bits of color that have to be covered by liquid paper. It's like the happy, exuberant guy versus the neurotic guy. Sontheimer is acknowledging the joy, doubt, obsessiveness and neuroses that go along with making art, but he's also laughing at them. These are very self-aware and drily funny works. Someone could copy the text and use it as dialogue for his next independent film.
It's fascinating to have a work composed of a conversation about the making of that work. But part of the success of the collages is that they function on a variety of levels. You don't have to read the whole freaking thing to get it. You can just skim a snippet or two (or not) and get the gist. Their jam-packed surfaces convey a visual and psychological punch.
These shows aren't the works of emerging artists still trying to figure out what they want to say. Engelstein and Sontheimer know what interests them, and it keeps them — and us — coming back for more.