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Carving a Niche

I've often cited Gertrude Stein's complaint that the problem with sculpture is that one can walk around it. It's a somewhat bizarre assertion, but there's plenty of modern sculpture to support her sweeping dismissal -- big, clunky public art that looks more like the aftermath of an industrial or traffic accident, clumps of unidentifiable substances that seem to have been thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

A few pieces in "Sculpture Now," currently on display at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) in Lake Worth, confirm Stein's worst misgivings about sculpture. But some are also stunning examples of how sculpture has "carved, so to speak, its own place in progressive art," according to the introduction by PBICA Director Michael Rush, who assembled the show with Assistant Curator Jody Servon. Rush goes on to conclude that, since the 1960s, "sculpture has been the lively locus of all manner of ideas."

The exhibit starts off with some uneven work but gets progressively better (especially when you get upstairs). Early on are some wall-mounted pieces by English artist Cathy de Monchaux that contradict Stein's bit about being able to walk around sculpture. The undated Breach is a series of four galvanized metal and satin objects that suggest chain-mail bras. Mordant Rapture (1999) is an unsettling construction of brass, leather, human hair, fur, gesso, chalk, thread, and oil that resembles female genitals as they might be reimagined by psychosexual gross-out filmmaker David Cronenberg.

Several wall-mounted pieces by Paris-based Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn barely qualify as sculpture: Tout va bien (1998) is basically a slab of masonite with sponges affixed to it and the title printed on it in felt pen. An untitled piece consists of a black cardboard octagon with yellow sponges attached to four sides. An also-untitled (and uninspired) 1991 series of drawings rounds out his offering.

Hirschhorn's free-standing sculptures aren't much of an improvement. Sculpture Direct II and Sculpture Direct IV, both from 2000, are large, irregular shapes that incorporate wood, cardboard, plastic foils, aluminum foils, tape, lights, television sets, video players, color paintings, prints, markers, and self-adhesive stickers. They're as messy as they sound, with all the clutter competing for your attention.

The austere beauty of Xavier Veilhan's nearby Le Train (The Train) (2001) is a welcome counterpoint to Hirschhorn's garishness. The French artist has installed more than a thousand small lightbulbs on a square of aluminum measuring 74 1/2 inches by 59 inches, then programmed them with shifting patterns and a range of honey-hued golds and yellows. The piece is equally mesmerizing whether you're standing right in front of it or looking at it from a distance.

Spaniard Jaume Plensa, who splits his time between Barcelona and Paris, contributes two surreal pieces. For the airy Birnam (2000), he combines four tear-shaped glass bulbs -- three clear, one red -- with some bits of fabric and stainless steel. The more mysterious Islands: Elements 1-3 (1995) includes three weathered iron platforms extending from the wall, each holding a long, vertical polyester case in which rests a numbered glass container filled to various levels with an unidentified liquid. The containers bear the names and dates of wildly diverse artists: Kahlo (1907-1954), Malevich (1878-1935), and Ingres (1780-1867).

One of the exhibition's most imposing pieces is Jupiter (2001), a monumental male nude by American Robert Taplin. It's made up of two components: realistic sculptures, roughly 12 feet high, of muscular, bald, anatomically correct men who are mirror images of each other, standing back to back with their arms outstretched in identical gestures. One, made of plaster, looks like a traditional statue, while the other is cast in a golden resin and illuminated from within -- the Roman god's luminous interior self juxtaposed against his stony exterior.

Leo Villareal, also American, has two pieces in the show, one on each floor, both best described as light sculptures. The one downstairs, Hexad (2002), has a long, narrow, darkened gallery all to itself. It's a circular purple Plexiglas box 60 inches in diameter, with LEDs embedded in it controlled by a device that generates constantly shifting patterns that dance beneath the surface in a pink blur. It would make such a perfect companion piece to Xavier Veilhan's Le Train (The Train) in the main downstairs gallery that I wish the curators had hit on the idea of displaying them together in that same small, dark gallery.

Villareal's upstairs piece, Lightscape, is really a whole room, part of the museum's New Media Lounge that has been reconfigured specifically for this work. The whole small, darkened space is lined with black, egg-crate foam rubber, and on one side of the room is a slightly raised area, shaped like an s turned on its side, where up to, say, four or five people can recline comfortably.

Once you're settled in, look directly overhead to a screen across which dance shifting colors, shapes, and patterns, set to spacey music coming from a set of speakers on the opposite wall. Just when you think you've seen "the show," a new set of images appears, and the overall effect is so entrancing that it's easy to drift off into a reverie. I have no idea how long I lay there, but when I got ready to get up, I was so relaxed I could barely walk. Call it multisensory, experiential (or even therapeutic) sculpture.

The best work in the entire exhibition, however, can be found between that towering Jupiter and the Lightscape installation. It's by Sally Ordile, the only South Florida artist in the show, a transplanted New Yorker in Boynton Beach. She took up art seriously at age 56 and now, at 62, is participating in her first exhibition.

Some of Ordile's works are in fairly traditional media -- four serigraphs, a lovely pair of small abstracts in carved encaustic -- but her most powerful work by far depends heavily upon organic materials. Sometimes, the results are a mess. Threads No. 24 (2001), for instance, is a jumble of rope, twine, and rosary beads treated with gesso and piled on a wooden platform like so much pasta in a sauce gone very, very bad.

But Ordile can also get astonishing results with her simple ingredients. The four long, horizontal panels that make up Threads No. 40 (2001), affixed with acrylic, insulation, netting, and wooden dowels, suggest items unearthed from an archaeological dig. And Threads No. 45 (2002) is another mixed-media piece that incorporates one of her favorite ingredients to great effect: five wall-mounted palm fronds, treated with black gesso, dried and cracked to reveal unexpected contents.

The exhibition brochure and the wall panels next to individual works describe these key elements in Ordile's work as palm stalks, but it seems to me more accurate to characterize them as husks -- those big, twisted forms that peel off from certain varieties of South Florida palm trees. And in 14 Stations, Ordile transforms them into a breathtaking installation. These pieces of tropical detritus, each as long as six or so feet, have been lovingly cleaned and restored, coated with a semiglossy black gesso, and suspended from the gallery's ceiling, sometimes solo, sometimes in twos and threes.

Ordile has also embellished these exotic forms with "accessories," bits of black lace, rope, and barbed wire that are so thoroughly incorporated that they seem to be inseparable from their organic hosts, which makes this work even more compelling: It's almost impossible to tell where nature leaves off and the artist's hand intervenes.

According to the exhibition brochure, "For Ordile each figure symbolizes a woman's voyage down a path of self-sacrifice and humiliation." But for me, these dangling forms suggest freed, if still forlorn, versions of the bachelors in that touchstone of modernism, Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), making Ordile, in her belated debut as an artist, an unwitting heir to one of the greatest innovators of 20th-century art.

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Michael Mills

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