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In the Gray Areas

Sculptor communicates realism by calling viewers' memories to mind.


Sculptor Jens Pedersen calls his new series of relief pieces, now at the Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara, "New Realism" and although the title might seem like a cagey play on expectations, considering the essentially abstract nature of the work, the moniker becomes ever more meaningful the more attention paid to the art. It's one of those shows deserving, and rewarding, a patient eye.

As Pedersen explains in a statement, he is dealing with "shaped wood allowing my pieces to become real instead of becoming a picture on the wall."

His aim, he says, is to communicate "in a mystical way to the viewers through their memories."

In other words, he's working happily in gray areas, between the representational condition of "pictures on the wall" and the physical reality of sculpture, and between abstract shapes and allusions to things we recognize as being part of consensus reality.

Along the way, he makes art with a wonderful lightness, with an almost whimsical sense of design and color. "We can detect touches of Miro and Gorky in his patterns, but also the goofy linearity of gonzo cartoonists. Pedersen last showed his work locally several years ago in a memorable exhibition at UCSB's College of Creative Studies. The new pieces are smaller and make references to a new set of visual ideas.

Without being specific, the shapes themselves make an assortment of allusions to the worlds of topography, plant life, cellular imagery and other asymmetrical forms found in nature. They avoid right angles and logical color schemes, or other hallmarks of the post-industrial world.

Patterns of tiny pegs jut out from the surface of many of the works, lending rhythm and three-dimensionality to the pieces.

We find hints of the real world slinking through his garden of lovely shapes, a tree or broccoli spear here, a leaf there. Curvy pink contours might suggest mission architecture, and a piece with two interlocking parts reads like an odd fashion, a garment and torso in a kind of dance.

The artist's "new realism" is successful on its own stated terms, in that this art appears real in new ways. He likes to juxtapose contrasting forms and hues, and counterbalance voids and solids, all in search of a happy-yet-mysterious dialogue within a given piece. We're keenly aware of the reality of these works, but the rest of the story is open to interpretation.

Pedersen's work seems positively subtle by comparison with the outlandish work in the main gallery, which houses the antic, active and interactive concoctions by L.A.-based Martin Kersels.

Kersels, known for his work in performance art, has created a wild, funny and sometimes profound series of plugged-in "performative objects," which turn the gallery into a thinking person's fun house, in one of the year's not-to-miss exhibitions in the tri-county area.

In "Objects of the Dealer," a desk is elaborately fitted with funky speakers, tape players and wires, each sound triggered by a separate object on the desk, until it's a mad cacophony of sounds--a fine metaphor for our modern over-work ethic. Another strangely noisy piece has as self-explanatory title, "Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling at It."

With these pieces, Kersels works a delicate balance of theatricality, outlandish humor and perception, not to mention Yankee ingenuity. Not many artists, after all, could summon up as potent and entertaining a piece as "Flame Speaker." Here, a vinyl recording of the Eagles' "Hotel California"--that anthem of decadence and self-destruction--is actually heard through bare speaker wires heated by a gas flame, which conducts vibration.

In photographs on the wall, we see the artist in the act of falling, tilting or tossing friends into the air, bizarre slapstick gestures that contain a kernel of truth about the Kersels M.O.: He's generally all about challenging smug notions of stability. We need more artists with his cheek and smarts to keep us amused and provoked.


Jens Pedersen, "New Realism," through Sunday, and Martin Kersels, "Commotion," through Dec. 13 at Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; (805) 966-5373.

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