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Art Review : On The 'Threshold' Of Timelessness

September 27, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Apart from its generous supply of painters and sculptors working within a familiar tradition, Southern California harbors a handful of artists whose materials, methods or concepts are so individually conceived and directed that we tend to forget them until they emerge with an exhibition.

Connie Zehr is one. She is underrepresented in galleries and museums partly because her work is usually temporal and fragile. Such contemplative installations as her carpet of sandy peaks capped with brown eggs must be seen during exhibitions because they don't exist thereafter.

"Threshold," her new work at Cal State Fullerton's art gallery (through Wednesday), has an unaccustomed air of permanence and solidity about it. Instead of being assembled on the spot from bags of earth, sand or other natural components, the installation consists of six sculptural objects that might be picked up and moved to another location. A reddish chunk that looks like a rock actually is a volcanic rock. But the other elements--three massive figures, a dolphin and a "Water Wall"--are made of tinted wax over carved polystyrene.

Zehr also has made a surprising move from abstract evocations of Zen or Chinese gardens into the more specific historical and mythical context of ancient Greece.

Stepped silhouettes painted on the gallery walls are meant to represent the theater at Delphi. A reclining male torso and two standing female figures (a tall, white, draped column and a blue-green nude that emerges from a gnarled form resembling a tree trunk or a spire of coral) are on stage at the theater.

The "Water Wall," a greenish wall piece that suggests a gushing source of liquid, represents the Castilian Spring at Delphi (the bathing place of the priestess who spoke for the god Apollo). A dolphin, leaping through the air in a rear hallway, is Apollo as he turned himself into a sea creature.

For a change, the artist has provided keys to her work for the literal-minded, both in the clarity of the objects themselves and in a printed interview with artist Constance Mallinson. But you can't explain away the presence of these sculptures or their collective power.

Zehr has said the Fullerton work is about "thresholds of time and reality." The installation conveys the sense of awakening energy as well as a suggestion of supernatural communication. The man is a sort of sleeping giant, the women (part human, part object) may be assuming new identities. The Delphic waters offer the promise of catharsis, and the dolphin might deliver sonar messages.

If this sounds a trifle muzzy, the beautifully crafted sculptures are surely more than they appear to be. Except for the rock, they're not made of heavy stone but of a lightweight synthetic. And they are not relics of history but live ideas, reverberating with possibilities. Though you see the objects bigger than life, their evocation of continuity or connectedness is finally most apparent.

That makes this unexpected exhibition pure Zehr after all. Her art is a consistently hopeful, renewing force. Now anchored to a specific place and a mysterious time, her generosity of spirit rings as true as a Zen revelation.

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