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Big A%# Sculpture @ Rena Bransten

Desi Santiago, “Mami”, 2010, black vinyl, 86 x 60 x 57”

Lately, the folks at Rena Bransten Gallery have been making big statements. At artMRKT in May, the gallery filled its booth with monumental pictures from photographer Vik Muniz. Now, with Big A%# Sculpture, they’ve supersized again, this time with a group of artists whose large-scale sculptures animate the gallery in a way 2-D objects cannot.  While fun is clearly the show’s objective, it does, en route, reiterate some elemental truths: namely, that size matters as much as context and that sometimes what you see isn’t always what you get.  But what you get is spectacular.  The works play beautifully off each other and are freshly activated by the space.

A case in point is the Bay Area legend, Viola Frey, whose untitled, 10foot-long, reclining female bather dominates an entire room.  Frey, a key player in ceramic sculpture beginning in the late ‘60s until her death in 2004, claimed fame by building clay works at sizes that were previously unattainable. She did it by sawing figures into sections and then glazing, firing and reassembling the parts. If you’re accustomed to seeing her s pieces outdoors or in museums, the appearance of this massive work in a gallery will probably make you feel like Gulliver meeting the Brobdingnagians. Me, I’ve always had difficulty with the kitschy aspect of Frey’s funk-inflected work, but this figure puts those doubts on hold.  The only thing missing is a swimming pool. 

Robb Putnam, “Dunderhead”, 2011
The ceramic sculptor Dennis Gallagher (1952-2009) made a career out of playing on the differences between perception and reality.  His works evoke Greco-Roman ruins at a scale small enough to accommodate galleries, yet weighty enough to make you think they’re actual rock. Part of the illusion has to do with surfaces that convincingly mimic marble or limestone. Balance was also a concern.  Gallagher liked to place objects on top of one another in the manner of Japanese stone stacking.  In Untitled (Well) from 1993, he perches a sphere near the edge an incomplete oval, setting up, as he typically did, a fall that never happens. 
Desi Santiago, a self-described “Latino freestyle Goth” whose work oscillates between art, nightlife and fashion, approaches the subject of size with a huge inflatable bust that hangs from the ceiling. It’s based on “a hypnagogic hallucination I had the day after my mother’s funeral,” the artist told the online magazine, Dirty. “I envisioned her head in black filling up a room in which the floor was a red color field. That became translated into an inflatable sculpture…I carpeted the space in red and adorned her with giant hoops covered in Swarovski crystals. I used to make jewelry for my mother so this seemed right.”  The red carpet doesn’t appear in this installation, but its absence doesn’t matter.  It’s the gulf between mass and weightlessness that counts. 
A  big contradiction lurks at the center of Robb Putnam’s art, too, but it’s not a function of scale.  At a distance, you’d think big animals built from blankets, shirts, fake fur, rags, thread, plastic garbage bags, leather scraps and glue would be a happy sight, but they are not. The material excess in Dunderhead, turns this creature into a monster whose drooping countenance mirrors the hangdog state of our overwrought planet. In that regard, Putnam is of part of large and expanding universe of artists who employ found garbage and junk. (Another local artist who closely mirrors Putnam is Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor whose giant rag dolls give off a similar weary-Earth vibe.)
Dennis Gallagher, “Untitled (Well)”, 1993, ceramic 49 x 67 x 67”
Wood, like ceramic, can also be made to behave in ways that defy its natural inclinations, but such transformations are harder to disguise. That’s why feats like those performed by Sam Perry, Viola Frey’s former assistant, seem all the more amazing. The Knot, a pair of life-sized wooden “legs” with a figure-8-shape entwining the crotch, yields no clues about its construction.  You can look for seams (or anything else that might indicate a modular approach), but you won’t find them. Perry carved the whole thing from a single block. Just as impressive is the high-modernist totem carved from redwood by J.B. Blunk(1926 – 2002). A disciple of Isamu Noguchi and Gordon Onslow Ford, Blunk, like so many Westerners enamored of Eastern traditions, is a walking contradiction: he approached the task of carving wood carving with the eye of a Zen master; his tool of choice was a chainsaw.  
Jun Kaneko is one of the world’s great ceramic sculptors — one whose strength resides in monumentally scaled pieces and inventive patterning.  Unfortunately, the piece on display here is tiny and conservatively decorated in comparison to his usual output.
Big A#% Sculpture doesn’t offer a high-flown rationale for why these artists should appear the same room, and it doesn’t need to.  Powerful oppositions achieved by scale and placement alone make it a must-see summer show.  
Big A%# Sculpture @ Rena Bransten Gallery though July 16, 2011.
About the Author

David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.


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