Friday, June 15, 2007


From the Times:
Walk into the State of the Art Gallery this month and you might be struck by its unusual sparseness. The white walls of the large front roomusually covered with paintings, drawings, and photographs - are bare. On the gray carpeted floor are four roughly human-scaled sculptures, arranged in a meandering path. The pieces themselves are playful, each inviting various associations: an upright yellow smokestack, a deconstructed sailboat-tent, a skinny steel man seemingly stuck on the ground, a yellow ball-shaped head mounted on a mechanical-looking body. The pieces are predominantly steel or concrete.

Although eclectic in style, all four pieces are the work of single artist, SOAG member Ben Sherman. Together, they make up his solo show "Progressions". With one exception, they share a somewhat unusual origin. Started at various times over the past decade or so, they were put aside, uncompleted, for reasons of technical or creative frustration. With this show in mind, Sherman recently returned to these outcast sculptures, in each case making substantial changes.
Using inanimate objects as stand-ins for people is a familiar artistic strategy. Despite their abstract or inorganic shapes, The King Minus the Queen and The Dutchman both bear portrait-like titles. More importantly, seeing them together with the other two pieces brings out their figurative associations.

King stands closest to the entrance and to the gallery's large front window (which frames its view from some angles). The taller top part resembles the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant. Its material is pale yellow-colored cast concrete. It fits not quite smugly into a bottom section, a elliptical cylinder made of steel and painted indian yellow. The edges of the base are lined with an irregular pattern of shingle-like plates. Supporting the whole arrangement is a 3-by-4 grid of squarish unpainted concrete tiles.

Like King, Dutchman is not a literal portrait, but has an anthropomorphic feel. A red teardrop form, cast in concrete, rests on the ground like an overturned boat. Covering each side is a three-cornered enclosure made out of fiberglass mesh and supported by six curving metal rods - these are tied together at the top. Between the two "tents" is a gap. Hanging down from the top, there is a black rope, which supports a yellow steel ball a little over half way down. The overall shape is elegant.

Unlike the other three sculptures, Born in the Fire is a recent effort. An unpainted steel figure lies on a low, light grey box-bed. The figure is made of roughly cut steel plates, welded together and scored with lines. Its forearms are bent slightly upward and its legs extend past the edge of the box: Bent at the joints, they form an up and down zig-zag. The upper arms and main body lay flat on the base. His chest is emaciated, ribs visible. Above the shoulders, the figure is composed of separate plates stacked side to side like cross-sections ­- this dimensionality in contrast to the cardboard thinness of the body. The neck and head are relatively realistic. The figure appears to be either yawning or laughing, and it looks like he is struggling to get up.

In the back of the gallery is the yellow-skinned Stranger in Town, half cartoon gentleman and half robotic insect. The figure is made out of rough colored concrete poured directly over an armature rather than cast from a mold. The texture is intended to mimic papier mache, a silly and ironic effect highlighted by the soft foam "stuffing" leaking from the top of the creature's five legs. These limbs, which come out of the sides of a wheel-shaped base like spokes, are rigidly straight and slope gently downwards. Black feet support the figure as does a circular, table-like black steel base in the center. Mounted above, an over-scaled spherical head sports a hat (also yellow, with a black painted band) with its front brim folded up. The eyes are painted white with details in red, black and milk-chocolate brown. The nose and mouth are sculpted, with brown paint markings matching the eyes. The mouth doesn't line up with the rest of the face, an effect loosely reminiscent of Picasso. The painted additions are quite rough. Stranger's comic primitivism may not be to everyone's taste; indeed, I found it the least interesting work in the show.

Its title notwithstanding, "Progressions" doesn't offer enough in the way of continuity of theme or approach. While the pieces are mostly strong and the stylistic diversity is pleasing in and of itself, those unfamiliar with Sherman's work may be unsure how these pieces fit into a larger picture. This problem could perhaps be addressed by the inclusion of sketches or other kinds of documentation (although this is an imperfect solution, to be sure). As it was, I was left with the feeling of wanting more information before making a judgement.

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