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ART REVIEW : Bontecou 'Sculpture': Hybrid Eruptions


"Lee Bontecou: Sculpture and Drawings of the 1960s" is a small gem of an exhibition. With 10 relief sculptures, one pedestal-bound construction and 13 drawings on paper or canvas, it occupies a single gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Curator Elizabeth A.T. Smith has succinctly surveyed a significant, early body of work by an artist of note who has not been much encountered lately.

Beginning in 1959, when she was 28 and working in New York, Bontecou developed an idiosyncratic form of relief sculpture. Crossing techniques of two-dimensional painting with those of three-dimensional sculpture was a major current of the period, and Bontecou endowed the newly emergent hybrid with a distinctive flavor.

Imagine a painting whose canvas surface has been subjected to fierce internal pressures, until finally it expands and erupts and splits open at the seams to reveal dark and mysterious interior spaces, and you'll have some idea of the peculiarity of her approach.

Over an armature of welded metal, she stretched canvas or tarp salvaged from old laundry bags, military fatigues and even fire hoses. The abraded swatches of heavy gray, green and beige fabric were sewn together with bits of wire--sutures, really, like those that seek to close a wound.

If laid flat on the floor, rather than hung on the wall, the reliefs would have the appearance of topographical maps describing a landscape ravaged by bomb craters or volcanic cones. These protruding, circular holes are often backed with black velvet, which visually transforms the interior space of the crater into a seemingly bottomless pit.

Sometimes the holes are blocked by jagged metal saw blades. The allusions to landscape are then joined by suggestions of human anatomy, from a menacingly grinning face to an ominous vagina dentata.

In this way Bontecou deftly builds on the Surrealist tactic of a simultaneity of vision, in which identity is in perpetual flux. Opposing concepts of figure and ground are inseparably fused, much the way traditional ideas of painting and sculpture are.

At MOCA, Bontecou's reliefs date from 1959 to 1966. Her first, tentative forays, typically small in size, are quickly transformed into complex constructions five or six feet on a side and several feet deep. Later reliefs employ fiberglass and polyester resin, painted in a manner that implies a cold, metallic surface; one of them even incorporates into its asymmetrical pattern the hard shells of crabs, locating a fearsome equivalent to her manmade machinery in a natural form of carapace.

As the decade progressed, her work increasingly developed an edge visibly reminiscent of science fiction, which is most plainly seen in the drawings. Graphite, charcoal and deep, black soot are rubbed into paper or stretched muslin, creating crisp forms that allude to everything from gas masks and jet engines to flying saucers and landing craft.

Strangely organic, these forms also cast a stark shadow of militarism. Miraculous creation and utter annihilation come together in these seductively horrific images. So do a sense of brutally prehistoric antiquity and grim, scorched-Earth futurism.

Bontecou's is a brand of Cold War sculpture that outpaces that of most of her older colleagues. In the exhibition, the artist is presented as something of an anomaly in the early 1960s, and it's obviously true that her work is distinct from the highly visible currents of Pop and Minimalism that together form the period's watershed.

However, in another way, she is completely of the moment. Bontecou took on a largely flaccid and unconvincing tradition of Abstract Expressionist sculpture from the 1950s and, through the infusion of a decidedly feminist set of strategies, she brought it to a stunning and dramatic conclusion.

We tend to think of the New York School as a painter's realm, with practically the sole exception of sculptor David Smith. In fact, there was a legion of sculptors producing large-scale work, often in bronze, that grappled with precisely those themes finally given convincing form in Bontecou's art.

Theodore Roszak, Herbert Ferber, Ibram Lassaw, Seymour Lipton and others created a style that might best be described as "Mesozoic sci-fi." Their free-standing sculptures were the meeting ground for a variety of conflicting impulses: prehistoric monsters and post-historic satellites, spiny forms and streamlined shapes, organic growth and technological brutishness. In the apocalyptic aftermath of World War II, and as the nuclear cloud grew more ominous overhead, they proposed a new, mutant vision in which life was held in a precarious balance.

At least, that is what they attempted. The commitment of these artists to hidebound ideas of sculpture--most emphatically announced in the proliferation of bronze--resulted in work that came down firmly on the side of old-time tradition. In the face of a profoundly different world, the sculpture vacillated between pompous and silly.

Bontecou found another way. Taking out her metaphoric needle-and-thread--and her literal bits of canvas cloth and wire--she stitched together sculpture and painting, coming up with a formally mutant mix that sent the content spinning. As a woman in an art world almost exclusively attuned to the work of men, she had no need to hew to prevailing artistic forms.

The work in MOCA's exhibition brings to a conclusion one set of Abstract Expressionist principles, while cracking a door on fundamental shifts that other artists would soon explore. The result is an unusually engaging entry in the museum's relatively new series of "Focus" shows, which offer a felicitous opportunity to rethink concentrated moments in postwar art.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 621-2766, through May 16. Closed Mondays.

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