Sculpture may often be "what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting," as Barnett Newman famously quipped, but this rings only partially true at Berkeley Art Center right now: If you back into anything, it will be to get a look at another sculpture. Curators Suzanne Tan and Ann Weber have populated the rotund gallery to its capacity and maybe a little beyond with Origins, an exhibition of sculptural works by twelve artists that "explore the primal and evolutionary impulses of shape, form, and figure." It is a brilliant opportunity to immerse oneself in a particular type of sculptural sensibility.
The unifying thread joining these twelve distinct practices seems to be an interest in nature, organic forms and materials — an inclination that feels very much at home in the Bay Area, North Berkeley in particular. Esther Traugot, for instance, crochets protective layers for fragile found objects — quail eggs, seashells, and the like — that betray an impulse to both nurture and control. Eric Powell, meanwhile, takes an interest in metal as a natural material, creating wiry steel armatures that he allows to rust and oxidize, resulting in a rough, variably colored patina that stimulates both the tactile and visual senses.
In a sprawling exhibition like this, there are bound to be both hits and misses — or at least what seem to be misses, presented as they are with almost no context. Carrie Lederer's installation of ornate sculptures simulating a forest scene, complete with a hand-painted duck perched on a stump, surrounded by hanging gourd-like objects, definitely seems to land on the kitsch side of things. Donald Fortescue's biology-inspired prints and wood fabrications, some of them displayed in a vitrine as though for a museological effect, come off as resolutely boring.
For every off work, however, there are twice as many that are marvelously compelling. Tor Archer's Frankensteinian female forms, a disquieting mix of organic materials (a crab claw for an arm) and industrial machinery (a power drill for a head), put a Dada spin on the femme fatale, while the artist's other work, like a large, carefully welded bronze forearm, exudes great pathos. Gay Outlaw's wax lumps and snow cone-colored oblongs are similarly gripping. In approaching shapelessness, they evoke a surreal terrain between the sexual and the microbial.
One cannot help but marvel at Sam Perry's large wooden forms, which, in their improbable arrangements, take on anthropomorphic connotations. Two pinched loops fit through one another like hugging torsos: a bowed form with two bulbous ends and an impossibly thin middle that towers over the viewer. Meanwhile, Joe Slusky's lacquered steel structures present a dynamic geometry of zig-zagging lines and planes. Distinctly modernist, they stand in stark contrast with the more rough-hewn aesthetic that pervades the exhibition. Taking it all together, one gains a sense of just what breadth the world of contemporary sculpture spans.
Origins: Elemental Forms in Contemporary Sculpture runs through June 9 at Berkeley Art Center (1275 Walnut St., Berkeley). 510-644-6893 or BerkeleyArtCenter.org
Editor's note: The previous version of this story got wrong the name of curator Ann Weber. This version has been corrected.