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What's the Big Idea? 

What is art? What is sculpture? Most of us think we know, but do we really? In the contemporary art world there is an approach that might be called art about art, or more specifically, art about the idea of art, and there are currently a couple of shows about town that provide interesting illustrations of what this means.

Selected Sculpture in 1/4 Scale is Christopher Saucedo's most recent exploration of the idea of sculpture. It's an approach that might be called conceptual, which could put off the traditionalists, but it can also be seen as a lighthearted pop reprise of his earlier work. For instance, Temple Arcade is a row of columns forming a facade reminiscent of the Piazza d'Italia's temple fountain in miniature. On an adjacent wall are some identical component pieces of another such temple still attached to the metal veins that form when molten metal is poured into a mold. If it looks familiar, most guys may recall how the plastic parts in the model airplane kits we built as kids were attached to similar ribbing. Toys, even in kit form, are a pop art staple, and Saucedo drives that association home with another related item, a poster for a toy called Saucedo's Temple Arcade. Some type in the lower left corner announces that it is a "1/4 Scale Replica," with "All Metal Construction. Assembly Required." What was once a whimsical postmodern temple sculpture is now reborn as a 1/4 scale model of itself, available in kit form.

Temple is accessible because it looks like what it says it is. Similar treatments given other of Saucedo's earlier sculptures can be more puzzling. Some such as Pencil King, a kind of oversized pencil wearing a crown, push the margins of cartoon culture. Others such as Statues, some mystery objects based on an ornamental detail from the facade of a museum, suggest industrial devices taken out of context. Yep, it's a head trip -- art for art's sake, not for Ma's and Pa's sake -- but there's a Socratic method to the madness. In these pieces Saucedo asks us to consider what art may or may not be -- and then ask ourselves why.

Glass and the Bigger Picture at Ferrara is no less invested in raising questions about art and our expectations of it. This column last week took note of James Vella's masterpiece -- a city trash can overflowing with hand-crafted glass garbage and go-cups -- but that was only one of the high points of this show. Slightly, but only slightly, more subtle are Patrick Martin's gargantuan glass clothespins. Dangling heavily from the ceiling, these translucent laundry accessories are spring-loaded and they actually work -- just the thing for your oversized glass fashions.

In his statement, curator Stephen Paul Day stressed the use of glass as "an idea based material," and what we see here generally covers the waterfront. For instance, Andrew Katz's Red Meat is a clear glass concoction like a simplified alimentary canal. Topped by a large oval of crimson labia, it convolutes into a gut-like passage that culminates in a no less convoluted metal base rather like a bit of baroque plumbing. Here the ornamental qualities of glass are twisted into something more expressionistic and visceral.

But Daisuke Shintani's Well of a Wall is seriously pretty, a series of several oversized cast metal leaves mounted on the wall. Each is filled with a clear substance like rain water, actually glass, that appears frozen in motion as it overflows the leaves. The sight of the clear fluid frozen in space, held in place only by gravity as it cascades over the leafy containers, is itself a study in implicit drama and suspense. Very different are Einar and Jamar de la Torre's multicolored bas reliefs that employ Venetian glass techniques in the service of something more like Mexican folk art. Green Thumb is a minor classic, a Day of the Dead skull enshrined by flowers, crucifixes and scythes. Sporting a gold tooth, it is adorned with the message "Enjoy" on its forehead, a reminder that while life may be short, there is no reason why it shouldn't be sweet, at least some of the time.

click to enlarge The multicolored bas relief Green Thumb by Einar and Jamar de la Torre is a minor classic, with its Day of the Dead skull and reminder that life can be short and sweet.
  • The multicolored bas relief Green Thumb by Einar and Jamar de la Torre is a minor classic, with its Day of the Dead skull and reminder that life can be short and sweet.
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