Art: The Third Dimension

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.



runs through June 10 at Bruce Mauldin MFA, 704 Fairview

For more info, call (713)526-3690

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.

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.

Ginn presents thick, tubular and dolmalike versions of her pattern pieces from "Limp." They're fairly appealing, but I like them better when she pushes the material into more adventurous forms, like her works included in "Limp." The halos of pins strewn on the floor work well, but the framelike rectangular wood and paper pedestals don't feel necessary. Debbie McNulty's Privacy, right? (2000) uses two-inch by four-inch construction "framing" to create a corner of a house. The window areas of the walls are filled with goldfish tanks, a visual pun on the idea of living in a goldfish bowl. On the surface of each tank, she explores privacy issues with nostalgic illustrations. One depicts a '40s-era policeman, all smiles and assistance, long before cop brutality and corruption were part of our everyday consciousness. The image is juxtaposed with text that ominously reads, "Your DNA is recorded as a result of a traffic violation."

Hills Snyder's witty and subversive Tattoo (2000) is carved through layers of paint and into the Sheetrock of one of the gallery's movable walls. At first it looks like some obscure prehistoric geometric symbol from a rock carving, a cave paintingŠ then long-submerged pop-cultural memory kicks in. It's one of those little plastic thingies that you stuck in the middle of 45s so you could play them on LP spindles. Opposite is Paul Kittleson's elegant Smoke (2000), a series of "smoke" rings constructed from circular tangles of steel wire. It's a sturdy manifestation of an ephemeral thing. Depending on where you stand, the rings are concentric or move forward in increasing size.

Jeff Shore continues his series of bizarre Home Depot rig-job environments in Just Add Water (2000). Shore's work invariably looks like it was created by a technological idiot savant crossbred with MacGyver. Shore has transformed the space of Lawndale's microgallery, and intrepid art viewers must walk down a narrow, dark corridor till they get to a lit basin of water. Having successfully reached the basin, you take the cup and pour water into the center tube. This (somehow) causes an electrical contact that sets a Rube Goldbergian process in motion. Across the room, a framed screen is lit from behind, showing the silhouettes of Shore's operating mechanisms of PVC pipe, aquarium tubing, wood and God knows what else. Water moves through miked tubes and creates what approximates the sound of a flushing toilet. It's a delightfully goofball environment that makes you wonder what he could do with the main gallery and a Home Depot charge card with no credit limit.

The surface of Faction, Kevin Jefferies's steel-paneled sculpture, has the text from paragraph seven of James Madison's Federalist Paper No. 10 cut into it. In the text, Madison presents an argument as to why people inevitably form factions and the role governments play in this phenomenon. Jefferies approaches the idea of "frame" in sociological terms: as a way individuals position themselves in society, not merely as a way to define the boundaries of a work of art. A box with switches is placed next to the panel. By flicking a switch, random letters from the text are illuminated to spell out the slogans associated with various factions. The slogans include such things as "Gig 'em Aggies," "Black Power," "Free Elian" and "Whites Only." Flicking a couple of switches at once creates bizarre combinations. For Jefferies, the challenge of the "frame" theme has turned out well.

Some other responses were less successful. John C. Runnels has painted his out.SIDE.walk (2000) poem on, of course, the sidewalk outside Lawndale; it's visually appealing and could be viewed as "concrete poetry" -- stop me before I pun again! -- in several senses. But it isn't appealing on a literary level. Graham Openshaw's grid-based Cartesian Intersection (2000) would have been better without the obtrusive floor panels, but it still calls to mind an overly ambitious 3-D design project or corporate art.

In any case, there is an abundance of work out there in this sculptural version of FotoFest. The thermometer hasn't hit 100 yet (at least not by press time), so get out, see the work, and judge for yourself.

"Darn" and "Frame" are on view through June 17 at Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main Street. For more info, call (713)528-5858.

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