Sculpture benefits from retrospective Review: Norman Carlberg's abstract work is a welcome surprise when seen together.

June 20, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

To one who had previously seen only isolated examples of Norman Carlberg's sculpture, one at a time, it was a welcome surprise to see the small retrospective of his work at Maryland Art Place.

A surprise to find that he's not only a sculptor, but works in prints and photographs, too. More to the point, a surprise to find that his sculpture, when seen in some depth, is more satisfying than the single work implies.

Carlberg works in modular geometric abstractions. That is, he typically takes an individual shape (module) and multiplies it to form a sculpture. The shape may be as simple as an oval with pointed ends or a section of a square column with fluted (hollowed out) sides. Or it may involve more twists and turns, more combinations of angles and curves.

His two "Modular Column" works here (1985-1986 and 1987), for instance, repeat a simple element over and over in vertical form. Each column looks complete in itself, but could be part of a mostly unseen chain that goes on to infinity.

Carlberg's art is classical in its simplicity of formal elements (shape, color, line), its tendency toward symmetry and the quiet purity of its presence. Because it builds on the repetition of a single element, it's easy to look at the individual work and think you've got the whole idea -- that multiple works will only repeat the idea without expanding it. That's not true. By varying not only the shape of the individual module but its scale (as well as the scale of the piece as a whole), its color, its bulk, its complexity and the way it interacts with other modules, Carlberg increases the interest of his work with each added sculpture. Such an expansion might reach a limit, but it doesn't here, perhaps in part because of judicious selection of works by curator Tex Andrews.

The juxtaposition of a massive work and a diminutive one ("Flame," 1989 and "Interlock," 1996) maximizes the effectiveness of each. By making "Seated Figures" (1983) in gray, when everything else here is in white with an occasional touch of black, Carlberg heightens the mood of ambiguity created by the title -- is this really anthropomorphic, or is Carlberg just having his little joke with us?

Certain works are reminiscent of images seen -- "Winter Wind" (1982-1983) of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, "Modular Construction" (1996) of the Sphinx; the viewer will decide whether such comparisons enlarge or diminish the works at hand. "Modular Constructions" (1995) consists of two identical pieces next to each other, but one is turned 90 degrees; shown together, they encourage you to linger and discover more about each.

Carlberg's prints resemble the sculptures to a degree, but don't work as well; at times they look almost banal, like ambitious art deco designs ("Storm," 1979).

His photographs are a different story. The surrealist ones ("Rose," 1992, "Untitled," 1995) are derivative without being cliches. But the photos of highway substructures (columns, walls, drain pipes) reveal Carlberg's expressionist side. "Jones Falls Overpass" (1993) reminds you of an Anselm Kiefer painting in its suggestion of a fascist regime bound to be destroyed by its own brutalist megalomania. And "Column/Pepsi" (1993) is the only work of art I've ever seen that makes a humanizing virtue out of litter. The Pepsi bottle lying at the foot of a column looks like a pitiful offering to an inattentive god.

This small but effective show may reveal to many, as it does to this reviewer, a more versatile, deeper artist than they suspected. It is one of the exhibits celebrating the centennial of the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Rinehart School of Sculpture, which Carlberg has directed since 1961.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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