Over the last 35 years or so, Robert Graham has made a name for himself sculpting super-realistic bronze nudes. His love of detail in these well-known busts and figures -- nearly all lithe young women whose physiques and faces blend Olympian athleticism and supermodel gorgeousness -- is superseded only by his good old-fashioned love of the female form, which, over the years, has begun to look increasingly fetishistic: not quite creepy but too enthralled with anatomical accuracy to be wholesome, innocent or artistic.
A few years ago, Graham abandoned the clinical fastidiousness of those works' wide-eyed literalism and embraced a looser, more fluid style of gestural Expressionism. At USC's Fisher Gallery, 77 sculptures, 24 ink drawings and 10 digital prints show the 69-year-old artist experimenting freely: trying a little of this and a little of that to see what works and what doesn't.
Graham has not yet found his footing: He is not in command of -- and appears to be uncomfortable with -- the abstract open-endedness of his new idiom. "Robert Graham: Body of Work," organized by guest curator Peggy Fogelman, is a hit-and-miss affair that is as interesting for its failures as for its successes.
Graham is at his best as a miniaturist. Some small bronze and silver sculptures stand out because they capture -- with graceful efficiency and casual offhandedness -- the human body's strength and vulnerability.
Most of Graham's faceless, quickly pinched sculptures are no taller than 3 inches. The ones that are worth scrutinizing for any length of time look as if their limbs, torsos and heads have arranged themselves naturally -- without unnecessary artifice or intentional deliberation on the part of the artist.
They convey the unself-conscious bodily grace of great athletes warming up or going through the familiar moves of everyday exercise regimens -- not the 110% efforts of prime-time competition but the out-of-the-spotlight labor of stretching muscles and preparing tendons to do their thing.
You have to search to find the dozen or so successful sculptures because Graham has arranged his figurines atop pedestals in clusters of three, four and five or atop a long table in a group of 49.
The small sets are more satisfying than the big one. And those that seem to depict a single figure -- at four or five distinct moments in time -- come off much better than the ones that resemble overcrowded, anarchistic yoga classes, each little participant stretching like a wannabe circus contortionist marching to the beat of her own drum.
Such all-over-the-place chaos characterizes the arrangement of 49 figures, which Graham complicates by mixing and matching sizes (matchbox to doll) and patinas (a precious jewelry-like rainbow of silver, white, black, crimson, copper and green).
Full figures are interspersed among ones without arms, legs or heads. And free-standing pieces are juxtaposed with others still attached to the strands and lumps of silver left over from the lost-wax casting process.
These unfinished oddballs resemble insects and add to the impression that Graham is cataloging a mutant alphabet of bent and twisted bodies. On the whole, too many of his anonymous people seem to be working too hard, exerting far too much effort for too little payoff.
It seems as if they're giving everything they've got just to hold their perverse positions: feet in the air, arms stuck out every which way, necks oddly twisted and backs torturously arched.
Their extremely unnatural positions suggest that Graham too is trying to do too much in terms of Expressionist theatrics and improvised drama. As an artist, he would do well to draw on the restraint of his earlier works.
His 12-by-7-inch ink drawings are lovely, the simplest, most naturalistic being the strongest. But when he blows them up to 5-by-3-foot digital prints, the intimate fluidity of his touch disappears in pixelated fuzziness and overwrought grandeur.
The same goes for Graham's large sculptures: three medium-size, three life-size and one 8-foot-tall figure. Each is an exact enlargement, in high-tech synthetic foam or photopolymer epoxy, of an approximately 3-inch figurine. Each was made by 3D imaging technology, via high-resolution scans and stereo lithography apparatuses.
In each case, bigger is not better. What Graham's sculptures gain in size they lose in authentic tactility and hands-on sensuality. The biggest have the presence of highbrow blowup dolls or miniature renditions of New Year's Day parade balloons: artsy surrogates or silly cartoons.
In Graham's hands, small and simple beats big and fake.
'Robert Graham: Body of Work'
Where: USC Fisher Gallery, 823 Exposition Blvd., L.A.
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Ends: Feb. 8
Contact: (213) 740-4561 or www.fishergallery.org