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ART REVIEW : Headless Figures Are Slim Sampling of Powerful Work

January 22, 1994|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Only a handful of contemporary Polish artists are known outside their native land, and Magdalena Abakanowicz looms the largest.

*

Her massive fiber hangings from the 1960s, installations of heaped, knotted rope in the '70s and, especially, her crowds of burlap figures from the '70s to the present have established her as one of the most evocative visions to emerge from postwar Europe.

Unfortunately, a show of recent work at UC San Diego's Mandeville Gallery gives only a thin sampling of her work's dense, earthy power.

One of the themes Abakanowicz has explored with penetrating depth is the relationship between the individual and the group, and how traits of the individual shift and transmute in group situations. She is not dogmatic in her treatment of mass behavior, however, and she resists blanket statements about mass obedience that would be all too easy to make after life in German-occupied, then Soviet-dominated Poland. Her rows of headless figures bespeak deference to authority while they also suggest communal strength and resistance.

With seven single-figure sculptures, the Mandeville show doesn't muster the critical mass necessary to sustain such a dialogue. It shows a softer side to Abakanowicz, who models her slim, androgynous figures as vaguely heroic. Their ancestors are in ancient Greek statuary, their nearer relatives the attenuated bodies of Alberto Giacometti. Abakanowicz's figures stand on tree trunks, within open boxes formed by slender iron rods, and on large iron wheels. Most are just under life-size, but one, a full-size male figure, stands on a wooden beam capped at either end with crudely hewn wooden wheels.

Without heads, and with shoulders pulled back so that their arms are nearly behind them or absent altogether, Abakanowicz's figures declare their presence starkly but with definite dignity. Modeled in burlap stiffened with resin, their skins are richly marked with creases and seams, disparate strands woven together into a semblance of unity. The figures have no backs, but stand like empty shells, a natural metaphor for the hollowness, both physical and spiritual, that racked postwar Europe.

Abakanowicz is not without a vision for the future. Half of the Mandeville show is devoted to her proposal (one of four finalists in a city competition) for a forest of tree-like habitable structures marking the western entrance to Paris. The 25-story dwellings would be covered with vines and powered by wind and solar energy. Plans for "Arboreal Architecture" show the vigorous, organic forms the buildings would take on the outside and the practical division of space within.

To live within artificial trees sounds at once primitive and futuristic--a return to the cave after having been to the moon. What Abakanowicz proposes in a larger sense, as much in her figurative sculpture as here, is a renewed focus on the basics: dignified democracy among humans and respectful collaboration with the Earth.

* UC San Diego's Mandeville Gallery, La Jolla, through Feb. 27. (619) 534-2864.

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