The Quirky Harmony of Arlene Shechet’s Sculpture
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles
through June 8
By Lorraine Heitzman
There is a little bit of Ikebana in the exquisite sculptures by Arlene Shechet at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles. So precise are they in their inventive combinations of color, line, and form that, like the Japanese floral arrangements, every element is essential. The sculptures are balanced, though not symmetrical, elegant, but not precious. Even the empty spaces are optimized, as she is able to maximize the effect of positive and negative space with her minimalist approach. Shechet wrings true excitement from the way she transitions from a plane to an edge or from a volume to a line. Though her sculptures display a subtle wit, the defining characteristic of her work is more of a solemn exploration into the essence of her materials, inviting contemplation instead of a laugh.
In the new, downtown Susanne Vielmetter space, the sculptures have plenty of room and light. Double Oculus greets you as you enter the gallery, a low grounded arrangement that sits on a shallow platform. A stacked assemblage of multiple shapes, it balances painted geometric hardwood forms with organic forms that almost teeter upon a smaller glazed ceramic cylinder. Like a Jenga-inspired game, Double Oculus needs each piece to uphold the structure. The large hollowed out log crowning the sculpture creates tension between its exterior and its interior, functioning both as a positive and a negative space. With a simple grouping of just a few elements, Shechet deftly creates a sculpture in which every part is indispensible to the whole for balance and where no detail is superfluous.
Nearby, sitting directly on the floor on short legs, Deep Listening is a chiminea-shaped vertical object of an even more peculiar variety. Made of ceramic with a heavily textured glazed surface, it does indeed look like a furnace of some sort, but one with several orifices, both cylindrical and rectangular. The blackened exterior emphasizes the process of firing and the crudely gouged wooden interiors of the cutouts look raw in comparison. These windows into the sculpture disrupt the form and allow access to the interior, whereas the cylinders are like the air vents on ocean liners or antique phonographic horns that either inhale or amplify. Deep Listening, though mysterious, implies a functionality that is unique amongst Shechet’s work, adding another layer to her deeply inquisitive sculptures.
Stacking is a device that the artist employs frequently, best exemplified by Love Me Tender and If I Listen, but existent in other sculptures to varying degrees. Built with modular forms of different sizes and colors, they are unified by their material and Shechet’s talent for balancing acts. They recall both architectural models and children’s building blocks but their proportions and precision elevate them to aesthetic objects. And then there are the organic shapes, fleshy and bulbous, sometimes anatomical and sometimes conjuring marine life.
Other Kali is a commanding ceramic and wood sculpture that shows off Shechet at her best. A painted wood column that mimics the proportions of a nautical piling, it stands on the floor, as if emerging from the water, but is also strangely anthropomorphic. The top of the cylinder is finished off with a wood cap, interrupted by a curved metal piece that dangles from the top and slinks down one side, and a fragment of lumber is notched into the top. Neither one serves an apparent function but they are also suggestive of a rope and pier. Jutting out from one part of the column is another supporting limb hugged by a ceramic element that fits neatly over the wood. It is hard but looks soft and organic, like a limb from a sea creature or perhaps encrusted barnacles. This curious totem is wonderfully subtle and if the title implies Kali, the Goddess of Death (or feminine empowerment), we are subliminally encouraged to imagine an alternative deity of our own imagination.
This is Arlene Shechet’s first solo show in Los Angeles and we are fortunate to see Sculpture in Susanne Vielmetter’s new downtown LA gallery. It is a beautiful installation with stunning work that surely will rank among the most rewarding shows this year.