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Vulcan Revisited 

In Roman mythology, Vulcan was the god of fire and volcanoes, as well as art, iron, armor and armaments. His lair was situated under Mount Aetna in Sicily, and the Vulcanalia festival, in late August, was a celebration of the process whereby the arts of the gods became the arts of earthly civilization at large. Vulcan was a facilitator of that process, so sculptors, as well as metalsmiths and weapons makers, are his progeny.

Now we associate sculptors with unique, iconic objects such as Rodin's The Thinker but, in keeping with Vulcan's legacy, some remain process-oriented, facilitating civilization from behind the scenes as much as from center stage. In that sense, Norman Therrien has been almost omnipresent in these parts despite keeping a low profile over the years. Best known as the craftsman who translated Mario Villa's opulent-surreal furniture from fanciful designs into substantial metallic realities, Therrien has also pursued his own sculptural vision, and this Stinson show represents a retrospective of sorts, with work dating from the late 1970s to the present.

For the most part, his earlier work suggests undersea life, with iridescent, freeform metal shapes recalling aquatic flora and fauna such as lithe, sinewy kelp leaves, or the undulating forms of jellyfish-like creatures. Even some later, more humanoid versions such as Belize City Dancers, or Havana Dancer, fall into that lissome, undulating sea kelp category. Others, including his 2004 Isle of Pines Sunset, like a nimbus of curved blades and jagged edges rendered in black, are more sober in tone and form, with an almost abstract expressionist resonance. It's a tone that turns playful in other recent works such as Lazy Tools, a sunburst of box wrenches and a bicycle gear welded into a weird Mr. Goodwrench sort of heavy metal epiphany. While most of Therrien's stuff evokes high art, its accessibility suggests a strong populist streak as well.

Barry Bailey needs no introduction to anyone who has followed the local sculpture scene for any length of time, and his current Sculpture Spoken show at the Academy offers ample evidence of his virtuosity in marble and wood as well as bronze and cast iron. Also noteworthy is the near-classical simplicity of line in works such as Gothic, in contrast to his busier, more surreal efforts of yore. Yet he seems to think increasingly like a process, or performance, artist. His demonstrations of molten iron pours feature a concrete furnace in the form of a human head, with blowers blasting air through the ears until the raging flames liquefy its scrap metal contents. Then when it all reaches critical mass, Bailey pops a clay plug so the molten iron spews forth menacingly, if poetically, from its mouth and toward the assembled masses. More than a demonstration of a technique, it's also a form of pure elemental theater that would do Vulcan proud.

Speaking of sculpture, Rome and Sicily, the Piazza d'Italia renovation is finally complete and the restored plaza, with its dreamily surreal fountain, is now intact once again. Widely hailed as architect Charles Moore's triumph of postmodern wit, it is salted with enough sly symbolism to make a freemason blush. So, if you were wondering, the boot shaped design of the terraced fountain pool does indeed represent the map of Italy. And many details of the surrounding plaza structures -- from their dreamlike forms and colors to the missing keystones and skeletal columns of the clock tower arch -- refer to de Chirico's Metaphysical Period paintings. Even the colors of the stonework, neon and painted surfaces have references in Italian history, yet the highly stylized overall design harks just as much to surrealism, art deco and futurism, with gestural flourishes toward Fellini, or maybe even Mussolini, as well as Chirico. We see this in the neon-trimmed capstans of the columns in the temple-like colonnade of the fountain, where some virtual columns are created by jets of water from what resemble oversized shower fixtures. There are even two bas relief heads spewing water from their mouths, visages that might recall the Borgias or Medicis but are actually likenesses of architect Moore himself. It all adds up to a wonderful phantasmagoria that blurs the boundaries between sculpture and architecture -- not to mention myth, dream and reality.

click to enlarge Barry Bailey's latest works such as Gothic (pictured) stand in contrast to his busier, more surreal efforts of the past in their near-classical simplicity.
  • Barry Bailey's latest works such as Gothic (pictured) stand in contrast to his busier, more surreal efforts of the past in their near-classical simplicity.
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