Gertrude Stein, no stranger to the art world, once famously dismissed sculpture by complaining that "one always has the bother of being able to walk around it." Harsh words, perhaps, but whenever I see some of the massive heaps of metal and stone foisted on us as public art, I'm inclined to concur. Fortunately, "Enzo Gallo: Monumental Works," an uneven but worthwhile sculpture retrospective at the Hollywood Art and Culture Center, has enough going for it to make us question, at least momentarily, Stein's sweeping generalization. Its best pieces certainly merit the "bother" of walking around them.
The show, which runs through February 8, provides a selective overview of the past three decades in the career of Gallo, an Italian-born artist who trained extensively in Italy and Cuba before fleeing Castro's regime to settle in South Florida in late 1960. The two dozen or so pieces in the retrospective are spread among the center's Great Gallery and three smaller galleries in roughly chronological order, moving from the predominantly marble pieces of the Sixties and Seventies, through a trio of bronzes from the Eighties, and into the mostly mixed-media constructions of the Nineties.
In some of the early marbles there's the sense of an artist who hasn't quite found his voice. There's abstract minimalism at work in, for instance, Symphony in Black and White (1969), an imposing vertical rectangle of black and white Carraran marble that's almost four feet tall. While it resembles the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the seamless juxtaposition of black and white panels suggests the ebony and ivory of piano keys. Like so much minimalism, it's pleasing to the eye even as it raises the question, "Is that all?"
Another piece from the same era, 1967's Study of Fountain, is both more elegant and more evocative. Two thin, vertical slabs of white marble, roughly two feet high, smooth on one side, rough and jagged on the other, intersect at right angles to form a sort of X. Here Gallo has internalized the shimmer of a sheet of falling water and then re-created its texture in a solid, highly formalized structure.
Gallery I also includes the curvaceous Librarian (1973), a white marble figure that manages to summon up both Henry Moore, an acknowledged Gallo influence, and Pablo Picasso. A couple of jumbled constructions of streaky travertine in this gallery don't quite fall into focus, however. And there's a white marble called Time Curves on Itself (1978) that looks like it might be the botched offspring of a tobacco pipe and a toilet bowl. Gallo is defeated by the lofty abstraction of the concept of the curvature of time. (One of the travertines, the grandly titled All Species Are Linked , suffers the same problem.)
The much smaller Gallery II is devoted to three Eighties bronzes that are clearly transitional pieces. The chunky Concretion (Creation of the Sea) (1981) is another reminder that Gallo has an unfortunate weak spot for grandiose themes he sometimes can't do justice to. The clean, graceful curves of polished bronze that make up Recliner and Sex Symbols (both 1984) are much more satisfying; there's not the sense that they've been pressed into service to represent some metaphysical abstraction. Still, you get the distinct impression that bronze isn't Gallo's strong suit.
He seems to have hit his stride, however, with the mixed-media pieces from the current decade, although there are some misses among the hits, which are scattered throughout Gallery III and the Great Gallery. Tucked away in the passage between the galleries are three variations on the same theme called Eternal (Joy of Life), from the early Nineties, each in a different size and medium. The undulating curves and lines of a human figure reaching heavenward are executed skillfully enough -- one in fiberglass, another in marble, the third in onyx -- but they left me cold. And of the handful of adjacent spherical works that make use of the concept of negative space as articulated by another Gallo influence, Jacques Lipchitz, there's one that's an unintentional bad joke: And on the Seventh Day (1990), a marble, stone, and cast-bronze composition. The depiction of God's hand resting on the Earth looks more like someone about to pick up a bowling ball. (On the seventh day He bowled?)
Nor can I muster much enthusiasm for Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Self-Portrait) (1997). One side of this ambitious but cluttered cross-shaped piece features a thick strand of hemp rope, fraying at the ends, mounted on a backdrop of carved, painted wood; ropy lines of glossy paint snake here and there. On the other side, two corduroy caps of the sort Gallo wears rest atop a mosaic of gravel, colored stones, and tiles. The garish, busy quality of this piece is in sharp contrast to the crispness and clarity of so much of Gallo's other work.
But there are some real stunners, too. A couple of works hark back to Gallo's Sixties work in their unadorned simplicity and power. A red marble piece called The Star (1992) is a traditional five-pointed star that seems poised to slip into abstraction. Several subtle differences between the sides create a heightened sense of drama; it's as if the sculpture is taking shape in front of us.
The striking Natura (1997), is a hefty chunk of red travertine that also seems in flux. The top, back, and one side of the stone are buffed to a gleaming smooth finish, while the rest of the surfaces are coarse and unfinished, with spidery veins and a few glossy streaks that look like water, or even tears, oozing from the rock. The only false touches are the small round marbles -- the kind kids play with -- embedded in the piece.
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Easily the most breathtaking piece in the show is the large mixed-media construction called Palo Mayombe (1996), whose title alludes to an African-based religion imported to the colonial New World (including Cuba). Mounted on a speckled stone base, it includes a sleek wooden column that soars to a black marble sphere on top and another colored marble sphere perched on one side. A length of rope encircles the wood at the base of the black marble then cascades in a couple of graceful loops down the wood and around the base of the other marble ball.
The dramatic tension in the piece comes from the interplay of natural materials that have been shaped by human hands; the sculpture is simultaneously raw and refined. And despite the religious roots of Palo, there's something startlingly sensual, even sexual, about its imagery, and it's not necessarily just the phallic implications of the wooden column joined to its two marble orbs. The sinuous curves of the wood are suggestive of human forms both male and female, and the textures of the different surfaces make this the most tactile of Gallo's works here.
If this piece, which doesn't quite resemble anything else in the retrospective, is indicative of a bold new direction for Gallo, it suggests the exciting possibility that the sculptor's best work is yet to come.
"Enzo Gallo: Monumental Works" will be on display through February 8 at the Hollywood Art and Culture Center, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood, 954-921-3274.