In the 16th century, King Philip II of Spain commissioned the construction of a mechanical monk--a 15-inch automaton made in wood and iron that is still in working order today. With an entirely self-propelled clockwork mechanism, the miniscule figure walks in a square, raises a cross to its lips and kisses it, turns its head, and rolls its eyes. Placed right at the door, a video of the monk is one of the first pieces encountered in Elizabeth King's solo show "The Size of Things in the Mind's Eye," now on view at Brown's David Winton Bell Gallery. The monk, one of four historical automatons shown in the video, stands out for its ambiguous function--it is clearly not an object of entertainment or a toy, nor is it really a sculpture, tool or icon. "Even if just a crude bit of wood and cloth," King writes in an essay on the monk, "[the] puppet's movement transforms it into something with a complicated psychology...it exhibits intent." These words describe King's show, a rumination on the literal and figural animation of the puppet, as suitably as they illustrate the Spanish monk. But while King's suggestion of the uncanny--of a sculpture or puppet showing live intent, rather than convincing us that the puppet is in fact human--is certainly present, it is not wholly convincing.
A Richmond, Virginia based-sculptor and Virginia Commonwealth University professor, King presents a mid-career survey in her Bell Gallery Show. In these 65 works dating back to the late 70s, the sole subject is a set of meticulously crafted puppets and their constitutive parts. A few are portraits of the artist's mother and grandmother, but the figure in almost all of the photography, sculpture, video and installation on view is the artist's own. The show is divided between two spaces. The front lobby is a cross between wunderkammer and an artist's workshop and displays the puppets along with models, plans, in-progress fragments and King's handmade instruments. In a particularly compelling display, dozens of pairs of glass eyes, of all shapes, colors and sizes, are displayed inside a 19th century style vitrine, with every eye backlit by a single LED. The main gallery is a darkened theater where the puppets are animated--both literally in stop-action films, and through elaborate staging and lighting devices--a space where illusion is primary.
Immaculate, bald porcelain heads sit upon utilitarian bodies carved from wood or moveable metal skeletons. The puppets are astonishing not only for their realism--accomplished most forcefully by their lifelike, hand-blown glass eyes--but also for their precision. King's meticulous craft is the backbone of her work, and she makes it explicit. The bodies and hands of these figures openly show their painstakingly assembled wooden ball and socket joints, and the heads are often open in the back, revealing the spring driven mechanisms for the eyes. The lips of the porcelain faces are perfectly painted, and each wrinkle subtly present. These details are undeniably awe-inspiring, but it's unfortunate that in the end, King's craftsmanship is the most compelling element of her work.
The puppets oscillate between their physicality and image--their subject and substance. The lifelike movement of her blinking glass eyes and perfectly placed joints is only possible as a result of blatantly visible mechanisms--a hole in the back of the head, or spring loaded neck. The division of the gallery spaces physically stages this problem. It presents the work from two positions: in the lobby, the act of making a lifelike object is central, and in the main gallery the objects take on a life of their own--the viewer is in an imaginary space where life comes from within the object, rather than being implanted by the artist's hand.
"Pupil," King's self-portrait as a half-scale, legless puppet, appears both in photos and a stop-action animation. In the video, "What Happened," a photo of the artist fades to her replica. The puppet doesn't seem to know how its body works--it touches its chest, traces the folds in the palm of its hand, watches the joints of its own arms move. When it moves its fingers, the gesture is closer to insects' legs than human fingers--they move with remarkable speed and symmetry. As the puppet scrutinizes its own form, it is as if King has been transplanted into the body of the puppet. A loop of observation is created where King is depicted both evaluating and physically embodying her sculptural act.
King's installation work puts the video and the object in counterpoint. Perhaps the most compelling installation is the show's title work, "The Sizes of Things in the Shape of the Mind's Eye." Inside a small wooden box, one of King's glass eyes sits on a brass stand, lit by a round spotlight. Behind it, an almost identical eye, this one rear-projected, looks on through a peep-hole at the back of the box. The video image blinks, but never shifts its gaze away from its static replica. Almost comic for its dark weirdness, the piece is suggestive of the surreal stop-animations of filmmakers Tim Burton and Jan Svenkmajer, or even artist Tony Oursler projections.
Nevertheless, in other installation works she uses optical framing devices that are overly literal. Failing to suspend their illusion, tricks like freestanding photo frames or old-fashioned camera bellows come across as gimmicky instead. Two pieces make use of rear-projection onto lenses. The image remains flat, but no longer tied down to a surface--as you move around the piece, the projection floats freely out of view. Though these are interesting effects, rather than letting these puppets speak of their own subject matter, she makes the jump to illusion too literally, and does the work for us.
King's craftsmanship and presentation--elegant, minimal and meticulous--is indeed remarkable. But somewhere the illusion falls flat. King's work raises the question of our desire to create in our own image--an age-old problem of art that she overtly suggests in the lobby's workshop display. Yet although the question is made apparent in her work, she hasn't provided a means of answering it. Instead, we stop short and the issue is limited to the immediate scope of King's craft.
No human blood runs through the veins of EVE ESSEX RISD'09