The Small and the Dreadful

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What we feel in relation to something monumental is not the same as what we might feel were the same thing diminished considerably. In the small, there is a closeness with the object that cannot be experienced otherwise. This is especially true in sculpture, where reduction in size helps a work become personal. The intimate gesture becomes charged with a voyeuristic energy that invites close examination. We experience the piece less with awe than with wonderment, pleasure and even pain. Because of its smaller dimension we can change its placement if we wish, and with little effort. A work can take on other appearances, offering new insights, perhaps even unlocking a hidden meaning.

This manipulation of scale alters not only the physical but also the psychological conditions of our perceptions and engenders a kind of imaginative projection which allows us to "enter" the space of the work. The artist's choice and use of materials often stress metaphorical possibilities that draw us to the center of the piece itself. If small sculpture is filled with elements of ambiguity more tantalizing than those found in large sculpture, it is perhaps because the dual power of matter and form becomes more acute in the small object. Human emotions become condensed with bold authority. By reducing the size, the object projects a feeling of greater potential.

At Inman Gallery, the ways in which many sculptors are reinvestigating the qualities of the intimate scale object has become -- as Alice remarked during her own inquiry into things small -- curiouser and curiouser. Comprised of an array of materials and forms mounted directly on the walls, placed on pedestals or grouped on a large work table, Inman Gallery's playful exhibition resembles an exotic garden cum experimental laboratory. Some pieces seem to explore the quizzical moment when amorphous blobs become sensual forms yearning for release; some forms seem to exist in a transitory state, hovering between the abstract and the figurative, man-made and natural, solid and liquid. There is a fossilized, archaeological quality to a number of the objects. A few appear as if they have been excavated from some prehistoric site. They could be ritual objects or talismans of some ancient culture, one more closely linked to nature than our contemporary world. Still other pieces have the look of enlightened technology, while at the same time conveying a sense of mysterious primordiality. These objects seem to curl in on themselves, like strange creatures trying to contain their vital force. Taken as a whole, the spare physicality of the works belies their disquieting multivalency. They are tense, art-historical hybrids: constructivist precision and devotion to materials, conceptual patience, post-minimalist nonchalance via organic expressivity and kitsch iconography.

All shimmer and dazzle, Lynda Benglis' gold sculpture Ghost Dance lures you into the gallery, speaking of the allure of beauty and of its manipulative power. Poised on a pedestal, the gloppy, yet seemingly animated configuration evokes associations at once crude and sophisticated, timeless and timely. Unabashedly, if purposefully decorative, the silicon bronze with gold leaf looks, well, so gold -- the gold of spray paint and candy wrapper foils, the brassy gold of faux jewelry and "elegant" accessories.

The centerpiece of the main gallery, and the show, is a waist-high work table with objects that reflect just how little physical evidence is needed to convey ideas about the human condition. Arranged around Bill Davenport's cracked and eroded concrete "die" are Susan Rothenberg's severed cast iron foot bearing down upon a dog's head, Jennie Couch's "vegetal" stoneware and Sharon Engelstein's polyurethane foam and fiberglass biomorphic forms, which look oddly like toy telephone receivers or, then again, like items from a mail-order sex catalog. Alongside these objects are cast aluminum forms by Engelstein that are at once evocative of African totems, surgical instruments and over-designed, postmodern ice cream scoops.

This tabletop display's erotic, playful tone extends to Linda Ridgway's bronze Seed -- a nine-inch-long peach pit with crevices that's suggestive of brain matter -- and to Kirk McCarthy's clay anatomical forms with protruding valves. Vague allusions to sexual fixations turn up uncomfortable psychic truths in Tracy Hicks' assemblage On Virginity, which juxtaposes a bronze apple sliced to reveal seed, veins and flesh; a small Bible opened to Corinthians; and transfers of pages from an old etiquette book. Still other works installed throughout the small gallery evoke references to voodoo or Santeria ritual. Consider Patricia Forrest's tiny bronze chicken heart and snake tail or Ridgway's three bronze "horns" that protrude from a wall at waist height. Their eerie, three-point shadows have just as much presence as the forms themselves, summoning forth visions disembodied spirits, even trophies. Similarly, Forrest's bronze braids of human hair are hung on a wall like powerful amulets. Unraveled, splayed open or tightly bound, the braids look as if they'd been burned, chewed up or dragged through mud. And Engelstein's collection of severed thumbs and fingers -- which stand on end or lay flat like specimens -- is jokey and horrific, including as it does chocolate thumbs, bubble-gum pink soap fingers that look like chess pieces and a mutant double-finger variety carved in wax.

Part of the allure of the small sculptures on display at the Inman Gallery is their resistance to any easy classification, and their ability to elicit unsettling associations to such diverse phenomena as cannibalism, mass graves, lust and the expulsion from Paradise.

DiverseWorks' over-the-top "Phantoms, Freaks and the Fantastic" also plays on surreal juxtapositions of body parts and props that delve into taboo realms of fetish and fixation. With the walls painted jet black, the space is transformed into subterranean darkness, a grotto from which emerges a repertoire of highly stressed and stylized creatures. Much of the work takes on a sort of nightmare Disney adventure, attempting to comment on an ambiguously bounded world. The tonic and the toxic, the lyric and the lurid, the refined and the vulgar here conspire and reflect each other.

Greeting viewers are Marcus Adams' hydra-headed creatures, with tongues that roll onto the floor. They protrude from a wall painted with grotesque body parts -- cartoony hands and feet poke at chicken-like torsos entangled in some weird metamorphosis.

In Celia Eberle's quirky paintings as parables, the handling of paint is direct and cartoony, as though the artist were recording her dreams in their raw immediacy. Slavery of Impulse features a male figure wearing a red hood and stretched out spread eagle on a mint green background. Tiny rabbits swarm like insects around strategic body parts -- the genitals, navel and wrist. Robert Shuttlesworth's grotesque visions re-form the human body as a vulgar and ugly prison, strengthening the fears of decay and disease that are so carefully suppressed. In the darkly humorous painting, Requiem for Baby Fae, the bodies and spirits of animals gather around the deathbed of the baby girl whose received a heart transplant and the cap of a joker. To the right of the attending nurses is a man dressed in dark suit and hat, with fiery red eyes and a leering grin.

In Millennial Children, Lynn Randolph depicts a culture on the verge of collapse. The painting focuses on two young girls grabbing hold of one another and locking their gazes with those of viewer. They kneel before an apocalyptic vision of Houston Ñ uncontrollable fires, polluted bayous and impending nuclear disaster. The girls shield one another from a pack of voracious dogs, as well as the devil himself, whose stomach reveals a humorous portrait of George Bush as vampire. Randolph seems to locate us at the center of a terrain where different groups of "others" disastrously compete for the promotion of their private interests -- whether they be fantastic four-legged predators or real world political leaders.

Gary Wellman's life-size wood figures are tormented, broken and degraded receptacles, merging personality with pocked and gouged bodies. Their faces peer at viewers like sunken-eyed death masks, as if to announce some Kafkaesque metamorphosis that will transform us into a snarl of nerve endings. In Paintings by Hilda Leal, James Cobb, Glen Gips and Dr. Jeff Brailas all present libidinous unleashings of sex-charged energy.

Each of the DiverseWorks artists respond, as to a degree do the sculptors at Inman Gallery, to the subversion of normal life and their fear of the dissolution of the familiar world. They feel the frustration of helplessness and futility before ominous powers they're powerless to turn aside. Their art absorbs their fears, anxiety and anger, becoming monstrous. The subject matter and media may vary, but ridicule, absurdity, futility, horror, distortion and repulsion are the elements from which their art is made. Gentle humor about life's ironies becomes a thrust to the vitals. As such, the works address questions of identity -- Who am I? What am I? -- posed by images that are receptacles of emotional identification. In doing so, they up the ante of grotesquery, exposing nostalgic, erotic, glandular, even scatological visions in ferociously festive, in-your-face vignettes. The result is a raw, nervy exhibition remarkable for its unchecked id, inclement soul and unabashed will-to-create.

"Small Objects" will show through November 27 at Inman Gallery, 1114 Barkdull, 529-9676.

"Phantoms, Freaks and the Fantastic" will show through November 23 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.

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