Sculptor manages to capture the surreal

But art in her show has uneven effects

ArtReview

January 22, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Karen Swenholt, a Washington-area artist whose small-scale sculptural figures in terracotta, resin and bronze are on view this month at Gomez Gallery, says that part of being a visual artist "is not always being in control of your concepts."

Coming from a less accomplished sculptor, such a claim might be taken as an excuse for less than compelling work.

In Swenholt's case, however, it simply points to an essential mystery of human creativity: As a matter of necessity, an artist draws on dreams, intuitions, premonitions and sudden flashes of inspiration that do not always fit neatly into any rational plan (or, these days, in the obligatory artist's gallery statement).

Part of the problem of being an artist surely is to leave oneself open to such influences -- without, however, allowing them to degenerate into chaos in the process.

Swenholt seems to have found a balance. Her sculptures negotiate a fine line between form and formlessness, and the balancing act is itself a kind of metaphor for her creative process.

The two dozen sculptural figures that make up the Gomez show are almost all drawn from Biblical, historical or mythical sources -- the Prodigal Son, the Lamb of God, the Repentance of Joan of Arc, etc.

Swenholt renders these figures in energetic, highly stylized forms that recall the rough-hewn, earthy dynamism of Rodin and the skeletal surrealism of Giacometti.

In a sculpture like Grace, for example, Swenholt renders the female nude with an almost classical serenity of line, even as the sculpture's agitated surfaces seem to threaten to dissolve the figure before our eyes.

In Monumental Fool, the male figure's pathetic attempt to cut off his own foot with a kitchen knife initially evokes a rush of pity from the viewer, until one realizes the sculpture's blank, Ken-doll expression and palpable physical clumsiness make him no more capable of feeling than the animatronic heads in a video game.

In her best pieces, Swenholt manages to hold the rational and irrational in fruitful suspension so that her forms assume the surreal authority of dreams, revelations and spiritual encounters. When they work, they certainly pack a wallop.

Not all the pieces in this show succeed, however, and when they don't they simply look like bad imitations -- histrionic, overwrought exercises in false emotion and false consciousness.

This unevenness may be more a problem of selection than of vision -- of conceptualization after the fact, rather than the creative confusion of artistic production.

Swenholt has chosen to open her art to the unconscious and the irrational, which is all to the good. But one would hope once the sturm und drang of creation had passed, the artist could still sit down and calmly separate the wheat from the chaff.

The exhibit continues through Feb. 1 at Gomez Gallery, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 410-662-9510.

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