Shiny Happy Creatures

In 1991, when she appeared on the Houston art scene as a Glassell School of Art Core Fellow, sculptor Sharon Engelstein's knack for distinguishing herself in group shows quickly earned her recognition as a rising star. "Shiny and New" at Texas Gallery is her first major show in Houston in three years, and it does not disappoint. If anything, it's one of the best solo shows by a Houston artist this season. The pieces share many of the concerns of Engelstein's previous biomorphic work, which isolated or mutated parts of the human anatomy. The well-dressed deformed and the offhandedly horrific are still her specialties. Only now she has turned to highly stylized and modified animal shapes, pleasing to the eye, disturbing to the psyche and pleasing to the eye -- in that order.

Visitors to the gallery are greeted by a receiving line of creatures -- a mama bear standing more than six feet tall, two cubs and a small otter. They're dressed in theatrical costumes -- mama in a sheer nightie, the otter in a splendid red velvet cape. Though certainly droll, these are no furry Disney creations. They are abstracted mannequins, fashioned from the foam forms taxidermists use to give shape to skins and coated with a sheen of oil enamel paint. Beside the fact that they are wearing clothes, there is something a bit off about them -- they have the too slender look of a wet dog, and one cub has only three legs.

Many artists have used animals in their work as a stand-in for the human form, exploiting their metaphorical power just as Aesop did in his fables. Both personable and personifiable, Mickey Mouse, Mr. Toad and Rover invite our psychological and emotional projections. We can feel tremendous sympathy from or for them without their batting an eye. But Engelstein's models -- eyeless and, because taxidermists have no need to stuff the ears of a skin, earless -- are exaggeratedly inscrutable. As such, they both invite and confront the viewer's tendency to project. The not-quite-right self, which tries on various identities, is reflected in these not-quite-right creatures, so uncomfortable in their own skins that they have shed them for more civilized attire.

Engelstein's work is driven by her attraction to highly suggestive abstract forms, whether invented or found. She has ordered objects not only from catalogs of taxidermy equipment, but also from catalogs of industrial appliances and sex toys. She then modified what she received with meticulous care. In this show, her nine glamorously hued Untitled (Sequined Forms) languish and writhe in a group on the gallery floor, organic shapes sausaged into dense skeins of sequins. Some are small taxidermist fauna such as skunk and mink, with truncated haunches where their legs should be. One looks like the trussed whole chicken you buy at the grocery store -- it would be at home on a platter of deviled Faberge eggs. The work is almost swallowed up by its seductive decoration, which is, of course, Engelstein's point. She wants the viewer to covet these bejeweled but maimed objects, to approach the amputee in the evening dress and ask for a dance.

Not all the work in "Shiny and New" is successful. Bloated Elongated Leg Foot, a narrow, gold-satin stuffed sock that hangs from the ceiling nearly to the floor, is neither as eerily familiar nor as mysterious as the other pieces. One Arm, a gray lace pillow with a prosthetic arm attached at one corner, has a dated, surrealist look. And Bear Rug, in which Engelstein has attached the head and feet of a cub to a thin pillow of luxe brown lace, is a contemptuous one-liner. Because of the implicit cruelty of the taxidermy supplies, Engelstein achieves more when she's willing to break her detachment and identify with her subjects. In Self-Portrait with Manicure, Pedicure and Borrowed Scarf, a small bear shyly presents grafted-on human hands for inspection. The piece is reminiscent of a William Wegman photograph in which one of his Weimaraners sports bright-red nails and a bottle of polish -- dressed up, but not going out. And as in Wegman's work, the autobiographical connection (animal-as-self) is clear, not only because of the title and human parts, but because of the empathetic approach of the artist.

The artists who reinvigorated sculpture in the '60s did so because they believed in its artistic autonomy -- instead of two-dimensional, illusive representation, sculpture was three-dimensional presentation that occupied the same space as the viewer. The greatest achievement of Engelstein's sculptures is that they take that idea one step further. By sexily asserting their physicality, they remind the viewer of his or her own physical nature. Tiger Tail, one of the show's most playful pieces, is a giant, fake-fur "tail" whose 12-and-a-half-foot span halves the room and leans up against one wall. Like some kind of bachelor-pad bean bag chair, its mockingly phallic, soft form invites full contact. One could easily read Engelstein as a feminine feminist, co-opting the traditional desirability of the female nude (the amputee) in her work. She retains womanly beauty only to laughingly twist its form into something fleshy yet repulsive. But still, her morphed, incomplete anatomies compel us to acknowledge our own wholeness and presence -- to leave our minds and reenter our bodies, as animal as they are.

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Shaila Dewan