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Art Review

Otherworldly Installation Conjures Sci-Fi Dreams

Stephen Hendee's 'Presence Control' uses industrial and home-repair items to strange but compelling ends.

February 07, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Sculptor Stephen Hendee has transformed the basement gallery of the Laguna Art Museum into a grotto of unearthly delights. Using rolls of electrical tape, dozens of sheets of inexpensive foamcore board, some fluorescent tubes, a few spotlights and hefty doses of imaginative wit, he's made a notoriously inhospitable space into something oddly inviting--even strangely comforting.

Hendee, 33, was born in Santa Monica and raised in Irvine, and he lives in Newark, N.J. His installation in Laguna is about making physical a space that otherwise might be visualized or imagined but not entered. Titled "Presence Control," the work resembles something you'd expect to see in a science-fiction movie or television show--a cave on some frozen asteroid, perhaps--or a habitat inside a computerized video game. At the same time, his vaguely cheesy, Home Depot materials work against the big-budget, special-effects aura of mass entertainment. "Presence Control" instead exudes a youthful sense of do-it-yourself play.

The basement gallery is a long, rectangular room with a low ceiling, which was opened into an atrium during a building renovation several years ago. From the museum's main gallery upstairs, you can look down into this gallery. Hendee's installation seems to spill into the lower room through the big hole in the ceiling, creating an unstable central mass built from precariously shifting planes.

Additional planar structures built into the room's corners and along the baseboards create a tunnel-like path around the gallery's perimeter. Being inside "Presence Control" is a bit like being inside a huge intestine or alimentary canal--which means the sculpture is digesting you as much as you digest it.

Site-specific, the theatrical sculpture has been assembled by slicing sheets of foamcore into irregular planes and taping them together along the edges. (Hendee's improvisational skills are impressive.) Black tape also extends in linear patterns across the planar surface, becoming a kind of drawing.

Recalling comic book illustrations, these straight, black lines suggest graphic representations of metallic sheen, avenues of invisible tensile stress and internal flaws in a crystal. The planes of foamcore emit a soft glow, lighted from behind by strategically placed lights that are occasionally covered with red or yellow gels.

Hendee's otherworldly space is further enhanced through a subtle soundtrack (composed by Eric Jackson and Will Dyar), which plays from overhead speakers in the corner. Imagine sliding steel doors and a power generator made musical and rhythmic, and you'll have some idea of the low, industrial hum that rumbles through the room. Played softly, the muffled sound seems to come from some obscure place, very far away, which adds to the alien remoteness of the scheme.

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The jagged, chiseled forms in Hendee's sculpture have the look of faceted crystals, but here they're warped, tumbled down, irregular, inharmonious and blemished. They seem to have colonized the space in a loosely threatening, mutant manner. Crystalline perfection is an old icon of Modernist utopias, a symbol of natural transcendence for a secular age of healthful, scientific progress. "Presence Control" is built on the ruins of that myth, scavenging its remnants for different ends.

Stand upstairs in the museum's main gallery and look down into the sculpture's behind-the-scenes guts of duct tape and cardboard. Hendee's playful installation emphasizes the fiction part of the old science-fiction dream.

A small show at Mark Moore Gallery in Santa Monica (through Saturday) shows the difficulty of translating Hendee's engaging site-specific aesthetic into gallery objects. His diagrammatic drawings, which allude to the sculptures' fractured surfaces, are most successful. But color transparencies of earlier installations, mounted here in wall-hung light boxes, don't do the trick.

"Presence Control" does. This savvy, modest, quietly engaging installation offers surprising satisfactions.

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* Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971, through July 8. Closed Wednesdays.

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