Reber's drawings, sculptures have multiple meanings

June 08, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Steve Reber's sculptures and drawings soak up interpretation the way a sponge soaks up water. The minute you think you see them one way, they accept that and ask for something else. That's not because they're wishy-washy; it's because they're open and receptive.

In his sometimes lumbering (but always endearingly lumbering) objects of rubber and plaster and steel, and in his sometimes dithery (but always charmingly dithery) drawings, it's possible to see elements of surrealism, science fiction, whimsical humor and deadly serious social comment, the nurturing of life and the finality of death, the battle of good and evil. And more. But there's no doubt that they're about us in many ways.

Take "Lungs," the smallest of the sculptures now at Grimaldis Gallery. Two roundish black rubber objects that look as if they might be diseased lungs sit on the floor, attached to the wall by four plugs. Do these suggest someone on a life-support system? If so, they also suggest that we earthlings, having polluted our world into blackness, are now probing other still unspoiled worlds (the white wall) in order to do the same. And they also suggest the insidious nature of evil putting out its tentacles to corrupt innocence -- and suddenly we're back with Adam and Eve.

Or take "Sunflower," in which a large white stem or tube gets bent over double by the weight of the burgeoning steel and rubber "bloom" attached to it. The parallel with a real sunflower's huge blooms is obvious, but one can also see hope bent over by the weight of care, and the promise of Earth's bounty destroyed by environmental disaster. One can even see in this a work of some irony, a suicide note from Earth. After all, if the stem feeds the sunflower until it can no longer support it, does not the Earth give us the oil and coal with which we pollute?

"Grandmother's Milk," the biggest sculpture here, appears less ambivalent, perhaps a shade less complex (except visually) but not exactly simple, either. A huge (8 feet tall) white plaster vessel form, looking more like an ewer than anything else but also somewhat anthropomorphic, "feeds" through tubes a series of little glass flower vases. It feeds them from the head and from the breast, suggesting nourishment of both mind and body. This seems positive enough until you reflect that the ewer gives, pours out its contents for the good of others, while vases only receive. Perhaps this is a comment upon the current generation.

It is in his drawings that Reber is both most spontaneous and most lighthearted -- he lets himself go and creates delightful contraption-like images that reflect his active imagination. Of the two "Untitled" drawings here, the one from 1992 looks like some Rube Goldberg creation, ostensibly able to perform a function but really there to chug and bump and hiccup along. The 1993 "Untitled," with its black shape and its white shape with green ovals, cannot fail to suggest a classic warring couple, Beatrice and Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," Kate and Petruchio in "Taming of the Shrew" or on a somewhat darker note George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

To observe that Reber can be lighthearted is not to imply that he's lightweight. He has serious matters to communicate, but there's nothing wrong with a sense of humor, and the fact that Reber leavens his messages with an occasional smile constitutes one of his strengths.


What: Steve Reber sculptures and drawings

Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., through June 26

Call: (410) 539-1080

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