Sharon Engelstein: Blow Job

Sunday L.E.S., New York

Closed August 10, 2008
by Elizabeth B. Zechella

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      Sharon Engelstein, Soft Head, 2008
      Vinyl and forced air
      9 x 14 x 16 feet
      Courtesy the artist

      View Gallery

      Blow Job, an exhibition of new work by the Houston-based sculptor Sharon Engelstein is not overtly related to the act of the same name. However, given the title of the exhibition and the forms with which the viewer is confronted, spicy sexual associations are inevitable. The title of the show references the mechanics behind Soft Head (2008), the canary-yellow, vinyl sculpture that is currently wedged in the storefront of Sunday, a gallery on the Lower East Side of New York. Soft Head, the show’s piéce de resistance, is the result of a collaboration between the artist and a company that manufactures air blown inflatable figures. Under normal circumstances, the company might produce chuckling Santas or buck-toothed Easter bunnies for annual appearance on a suburban lawn or rooftop. But in this case, with Engelstein’s direction, the company has created an inflatable sculpture in which biomorphic appendages sit atop and around a wide base of bulbous spheres. The shapes of the appendages vary from single and double breasted cylinders to more phallic forms. Although this site-specific piece adopts the scale and medium of its commercial counterparts, the boxed-in environment of the storefront allows the viewer to ambulate only partially around the sculpture. The blow of the fan provides an aural experience while the viewer peers around and over Soft Head’s hills, cracks and crevices, discovering burgeoning penile surprises and smooth tumorous protrusions.

      Representing a different method of artistic collaboration, the exhibition also includes five “rapid prototypes,” small-scale, monochrome sculptures that are physical manifestations of three dimensional computer-generated models. Made of plaster powder and binder (which resembles the texture of sandstone and the color of milky limestone), these “rapid prototypes” consist of shapes both created by the artist and taken from digital image banks like Clip Art. For example, in Sliders (2008), a suspended staircase connects two egg-shaped forms, and a classic playground slide hangs mid-egg, creating a surrealistic combination of abstract and distinctly recognizable imagery. Another “rapid prototype,” Ambiguous Paws (2008), consists of a wobbly body of petrified, hole-less donuts with a set of cartoonish animal paws attached to the bottom. While this combination of recognizable and unrecognizable imagery makes the“rapid prototypes” visually compelling, ultimately these works leave the viewer with a number of unanswered questions concerning the artist’s process and the relationships between juxtapositions and between medium and content.

      On the other hand, Engelstein’s drawings, which depict single views of her sculptures (not all of which are in the show) have a precision and elegance that the sculptures generally lack. These unique ink-jet prints do not function as preparatory drawings or as two-dimensional translations of the 3-D works; rather they are crisp, multi-perspective renderings in super-fine black ink that stand in their own right as compelling independent works, while also adding depth to the sculptures. The majority of the drawings on view feature fantastical anthropomorphic characters, such as a camera-headed cyborg and a blob masked as Darth Vader. Each ink jet print is a constellation of connecting dots and lines; varying degrees of density create form, shadow and line and an overall diaphanous effect.

      Kit Bank (2008), for example, is created from two disparate parts. A four-footed, squatty globe with a neck sprouting from the top serves as a base for a larger puckered sphere. Directly above the neck, gracefully draped over the top curve of the sphere, is a set of feline ears. Or perhaps, in keeping with the connotations of the title of the show, it's a disembodied set of spread legs. Where the discrete elements overlap, the hairlines build upon each other to become more active and excited. In this way, the drawing makes visible the mechanics, structure and striated layers of its medium.

      From an inflatable manufacturing company to computer programs, all works in the exhibition are created by the artist and a machine. Perhaps this collaborative act alludes to the title of the exhibition more directly than one might initially think.

      Elizabeth B. Zechella was most recently an editor at Phaidon Press where she focused on the forthcoming book, Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions That Made Art History (Fall 2008) by Bruce Altshuler. She is almost sure of her next step, but not quite.

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