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VALLEY WEEKEND | SIGHTS

Sculptor Probes Realm of Unnatural History

Ron Pippin amuses and haunts with his mutant creatures that blend with images of religious icons and perverse medical experiments.

June 06, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Depending on the psychological baggage viewers bring with them, their reactions to sculptor Ron Pippin's provocative show at Burbank's Mythos Gallery may vary radically.

At face value, Pippin's audacious yet weirdly elegant assemblages comport themselves with dark humor: They look like the innocent tinkerings of a gifted flea-market hound.

Yet the artist's recurring references to taxidermy, altered religious icons and perverse medical experiments can make us squirm, even as we admire the craftsmanship involved. Pippin's work serves as a reminder that, in art, face value is often overrated. He is tapping into a dream realm, and is not afraid of the dark.

There is something strange, something antiquated, and yet also irrational about these works, fashioned from leather, wood and metal, and often with stuffed animals thrown into the list of materials. Pippin likes to create mutant creatures, defying the natural order of the animal kingdom, which, in itself, gives the work a touch of the bizarre and the macabre.

Sometimes, viewers are forced to confront their own responses to a certain image. What is it, for instance, that is so unsettling about "Frog Resurrection," in which a winged toad rises from his wee casket, heaven or bust?

Pippin's intra-species "Baby Duck" series, with crude grafting of stuffed fowl with human parts, can be goofy and creepy at the same time.

One room in the gallery is devoted to larger, more elaborate tableaux, encased behind glass to add to the archival or funereal atmosphere. These pieces are especially disorienting, echoing the dusty, unsanitary realm of pre-industrial life and pre-modern medical practices. The unsavory surgical apparatuses of the fantasy film "City of Lost Children" are brought to mind.

Pippin is guilty of some degree of necromancy here, relishing images of decay with mummified creatures or dolls far past their prime. But, as with Joel Peter Witkins' photographs, the ghoulish aspects of his vision serve the purpose of awakening the senses, working in dark corners of the psyche that we normally ignore. Any perceived morbidity is generally lightened by the sheer inventiveness of Pippin's constructions.

Moreover, a serious, spiritual quest for understanding hums beneath the mysterious surfaces of the art. Underlying the entire show is the central theme of the human desire for flight and transcendence, of a spiritual or physical nature.

"Wings," visible through the front window of the gallery, is nothing more than a slipshod pair of shiny metal wings attached to a leather harness, an obviously futile contraption that hints at Wright Brothers-era flight experimentation.

One could look with dismay and admiration at the gruesome tableau called "Operation," with an anesthetized bird strapped into a dental chair, apparently ready for a makeshift species-change operation.

In other tableaux--which appear to be lifted from a Museum of Unnatural History--efforts seem to be made to extract from birds, by forceful surgical means, the precious gift of flight.

In the back room of the gallery, Pippin's otherwise subtle religious or existential implications become more overt, as the artist extends his sights to figures taken from the ranks of Christian lore.

The martyred St. Sebastian is represented here by a life-size figure riding on a reindeer, impaled by a duck's head. A collection of feathers dangles from his head, rendering him impotent in terms of flight potential.

"Gabriel" makes an appearance as an angel in a scrappy aviator suit and bandages, strapped to a set of wings--a holy visage with pitiful equipment.

Even though it suggests a dim, hermetic world of its own, Pippin's show is a bold and eye-opening affair, challenging to the intellect and appealing to the senses. It is even entertaining, on some level, but always with an undercurrent of grim yearning, which keeps the menagerie from being mere artful handiwork.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Ron Pippin, "Descending into Paradise."

* WHEN: Through June 22.

* WHERE: Mythos Gallery, 1009 W. Olive Ave., Burbank.

* CALL: (818) 843-3686.

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