Continuing through April 25, 2014
Debra Baxter’s third solo show since her 2008 debut at Massimo Audiello in New York confirms and deepens the direction her earlier work was taking: enigmatic, ambiguous surrealist-inspired abstract objects that defy conventional sculptural categories. Educated widely from Kansas City and Minneapolis to New York and Florence, Italy, Baxter insists on combining influences as diverse as Renaissance wünderkammer, or natural history collections, and West Coast trompe l’oeil ceramic sculpture.
Presentation and positioning are underlying formal issues Baxter deals with in her multi-element tabletop objects that mix semi-precious stones with cast iron and bronze, wood, aluminum, or glass. Carved slabs of alabaster act as supports for the carefully selected and cut chunks of quartz, malachite, amethyst and Alaskan jasper. Recalling another Seattle sculptor, John Marshall, who pioneered combining gems and metals, Baxter’s scale is more intimate and involving, but also less imposing and monumental. Cleverly simulated kinks and wrinkles transform materials, as in “Drown Me in You” and the extraordinary “Thin Ice,” wherein a mirrored top seems a placid pond above a pale blue alabaster cave.
Relationships — material, compositional, metaphorical — are another continuing theme for Baxter. Always just this side of giant brooches or jewelry ornament, the sculptures without obvious pedestals or supports can be imagined as worn or sported on one’s chest or fist, as in “Devil Horn Crystal Brass Knuckles,” a 2013 work that builds on a 2007 hand sculpture. Similarly, “Malachite” and “Me and You” could be held in one’s hand, like ornate worry beads. With the sculptures’ jagged edges and compressed forms (see “Big Mouth” and “Azurite”), the viewer is physically distanced or repulsed yet oddly attracted, as if to poisonous sea anemones. “Big Mouth,” like “Bracing Air,” poses precarious arch or bridge forms, but they are as solidly interconnected as barnacles to a pier.
The explicit body references of her earlier work — breasts, tongues, legs and arms — are downplayed in the newest pieces, though not entirely. “Head Like a Hole” (the largest sculpture at five feet high) sets an enormous hollowed-out head shape of cracked-open amethyst within a Giacometti-like cast-iron cage. The magnetic power of this work lies in its ability to suggest simultaneously a shot-gunned, open-wound face and a dazzling array of gorgeous deep purple and red stones. When successful, as is the case here and in “Meet in the Middle,” the gemstone/metal combination can be fascinating despite its bordering on the diminutive or undemonstrative. The larger scale of “Head Like a Hole” suggests a welcome, different direction for the 41-year-old artist. Re-confronting 20th-century abstract sculpture while re-inventing and subverting it, Baxter’s next body of work could move beyond the mysterious boudoir vanity table setting to the open plaza, leaving behind its birth in the curio cabinet of a richly mottled past.