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June 09, 1989|KRISTINE McKENNA

There's a deceptive veneer of innocence about the work of the late H. C. Westermann. A much loved figure whose career came to a premature close in 1981, this master assemblagist turned out impeccably crafted objects that appear as though they might've been the work of some harmlessly eccentric backwoods crank. His work looks funky and warm, but in fact there's something slightly sinister afoot here, and the specter of death haunted much of what Westermann did.

Combining a wicked Dadaist sense of humor (along with Dada's predilection for visual puns) with a crude, cartoonish graphic style, Westermann's aesthetic is infused with the volatile humor of a dangerous drunk whose party games threaten to turn ugly without warning. An undercurrent of violence churns through this wild, decidedly masculine work that favors narratives best described as young boys' tales of adventure mutated into something weird. Westermann's drawings take us into a swampy netherworld where the trees are always bare of leaves and the sun never shines. In "Wonder Bread Picture" we see a parched field inhabited by a scarecrow and a lynched man swinging from a tree, while "In The Desert" depicts a nude woman in red high heels staggering from a fish pond to a crumbling adobe under the watchful gaze of a ferocious beast. Drawn in the manner of ribald jokes, they are nonetheless spooky images.

Westermann's objects tend to be a bit more whimsical; "A Bronze Sculpture That Might Be Moved Frequently" is a block of bronze with a handle attached, while "A Blimp" is a perfect replica of the Goodyear Blimp carved in an exotic wood. More often, his assemblages have the same edge one finds in his drawings. "The Pig House" involves a rubber replica of a dead pig hanging from a hook inside a beautifully crafted screen house. It's at once elegant, funny and cruel. This museum quality survey includes 33 pieces dating from 1962 to 1978. (James Corcoran Gallery, 1327 5th St., to July 1.)

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