Artists test the limits of abstract sculpture

January 13, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

As chance would have it, three of our leading commercial galleries are giving us shows devoted largely to sculpture. In two of the shows, people known primarily as sculptors are working in two-dimensional media. In the third, an artist thought of primarily as a painter reveals her talents as a sculptor.

These three shows offer a wide variety of sculpture. Those of you familiar with the medium will find these shows enlightening; those unfamiliar would be wise to brave the cold weather and tour the galleries for an educational opportunity.

At Grimaldis, a half-dozen artists test the limits of abstract sculpture, from the minimal to the baroque. Some of them work in drawing as well.

Bernar Venet's steel sculpture "Two Indeterminate Lines" has, as its name implies, the linear quality of a drawing. But its coiled bars of steel also possess a contained tension that suggests a balance between repose and action. In his drawing "Three Undetermined Lines," the drawn bars of steel appear to have the weight, volume and mottled surface of the real thing.

Osami Tanaka's restrained free-standing columns, together with his single shelf piece (all untitled), come out of minimalism, but their surfaces and the interrelationships of their materials -- paraffin, steel and, in one case, wood -- possess a richness that provides a foil for their simple shapes.

John McCarty's standing pieces combining stone and metal are essentially abstract, but there is something of architecture about them, too, especially "Megara." It most directly suggests an arch, but also a whole building more or less in the process of pulling itself together.

Of Anthony Caro's two pieces here, "Table Piece 'Hot Scent' " has a baroquecomplexity of parts, combined with surface marks that resemble the gestural brush strokes of abstract painting. His "Table Piece CCCLII (Second Blebo)" is made partly from found objects -- a pitchfork and the scoop of a shovel -- and has a linear component that resembles a drawn line. In these thoroughly contemporary sculptures Caro suggests that he is ranging across media and through art history.

John Ruppert has taken a rock, rendered it in a pastel drawing and cast it in both aluminum and bronze. Then, he's arranged the rock and the two cast pieces as a three-part sculpture. This treatment raises the rock to the status of icon and blurs the boundaries between what's art and what's not. The real rock becomes art, and in doing so imitates both itself and the art made from it.

Joel Fisher is represented by one sculpture -- the bronze "Pegasus," which suggests much more of the winged horse than it actually denotes -- and by three of the series of drawings he calls "Apographs." Fisher identifies a flaw in a piece of handmade paper -- for example, a tiny thread in the shape of a line with a loop at each end -- and then replicates this flaw as a larger drawing. These drawings, like "Pegasus," suggest more than we specifically see. Each looks as if it is part of a whole that we have a sense of even though we can't quite define it.

With Fisher's works, as with the show as a whole, there's more going on than meets the eye at first glance.

Whimsical 'Travelers'

At Galerie Francoise, a show of Gagik Aroutiunian's sculptures and paintings is a mixed bag. Aroutiunian is an artist of great possibilities. His last show here, in late 1991, contained more than a dozen life-sized and larger sculptures from two series: "The Traveler and His Road," which is autobiographical, and "Artsakh," which refers to the strife-torn region of his homeland of Armenia.

The present show's sculptures continue these series, only in smaller, pedestal versions. I don't think scaling down necessarily causes a loss of impact. But something has happened to the "Traveler" series since last time.

The larger "Traveler" pieces had great power. They spoke of alienation and strangeness, of groping toward meaning in a world one didn't know. The new, smaller "Traveler" pieces, by contrast, are too whimsical and precious for their own good. One of them, "Traveler and His Road #S1," with its mirrored surfaces and deco-like curves, almost descends to the kitschy. Aroutiunian fails to summon the angst he once did. As a result, the works in this series lack the substance of earlier ones.

With "Artsakh," he's on surer ground. These cage-like pieces, with their burned and discolored surfaces, their bits of metal hanging here and there like blasted parts of buildings or people, and their gallant banners waving in defiance of death and destruction, recall the compelling nature of Aroutiunian's earlier work. If they refer to Armenia specifically, they remind us of other civilization-destroying conflicts, including Lebanon, Armenia and Bosnia. Aroutiunian's one wall work on the subject, part painting and part sculpture, is as effective as the pedestal pieces.

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