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October 2 - 31, 2004 at OCCCA, Orange County

by Daniella Walsh

William Catling, "Pilot of the Other
Realm" (detail), 2003-04, bronze.
Three artists, sculptor William Catling, multi-media artist Jeffrey Crussell and ceramicist Nancy Harlan title their current group show Journeys. This is apt since they aim to lead their audience, through their art, down the more or less convoluted paths of their own inner journeys.

Catling's sculptures evidence a journey that begins with the ancient question: Who are we; who am I? He draws answers from human history and the tenets of the Christian gospel. Consequently, his work evidences a beatific joy and pain. Viewers familiar with his near-monumental clay sculptures will recall that the figures, in nearly all instances, pay homage to the nobility and inevitability of suffering.

For this show Catling has, for the first time in decades, created his unrelentingly anguished figures cast in bronze. But, besides his rediscovery of a long abandoned medium and a scaling down of size, little has changed conceptually. His torn, flayed and Sebastian-like androgynous figures are still emaciated, hidden behind reed-like constructions or imprisoned in cocoons with faces partially obscured and contorted in pain. They are metaphors for tortured souls, but never devoid of beauty and the implication of hope.

Whether Catling's figures' feet are spiked with countless nails, their torsos scarred and convoluted, or their limbs severed from bodies, they convey a nobility that is informed by classical sculpture as well as the earthy and provocative work of Rodin or Giacometti. A more immediate precedent would be Steven De Staebler. Indeed, Catling studied under that master and is eloquent in expressing his admiration for him.

Catling builds soaring, winged spiritual entities. He describes a bronze angel titled Pilot to the Realm Unknown, as a spiritual guide. Much like the flight of creation, these angels are beautiful apparitions that may be seen as timeless and yet topical.

Nancy Harlan's life journey has taken her down several paths, 25 years of corporate law practice among them. Working now as a full-time ceramicist, her pieces address women's social issues, particularly conditions imposed by their native culture. For example, she tackles the subject of physical mutilation for the sake of marriageability.

In an installation titled 1001 Bowls, so titled for the quantity of ceramic pots filled or embellished with found or recycled objects. She likens the vessels to Buddhist monks' begging bowls that are filled by the faithful to sustain them as they wander. In the same spirit Harlan insists on using recycled materials. As a result, the installation effectively approximates her personal creative journey and its unpredictability. Viewers in tune with the environment and appreciative of a Zen attitude toward life will find resonance in this work.

Nancy Harlan, "1001 Bowls," view 1,
2004, ceramic pots with various objects.

Nancy Harlan, "1001 Bowls," view 2,
2004, ceramic pots with various objects.

Jeffrey Crussell, "Lifeline," 2004,
birch/vinyl letters/paint, 6" x 3" x 25 feet.

Jeffrey Crussell, "Love is a Spell," 2004,
birch/vinyl letters/paint, 12 x 12 x 12".

Jeffrey Crussell, "Roulette," 2004,
birch/mahogany/vinyl letters/
plastic/paint, 33" dia. x 12".
Jeffrey Crussell uses his divorce as a point of departure for many of his architecturally influenced constructions, attempting to analyze the convoluted paths of male/female relationships and the choices they entail. Presuming the random way most approach such couplings, Crussell presents a thirty-three-inch in diameter Roulette wheel positioned so that viewers can give it a spin. If you take the trouble to do so, you might find out what lies in store for you and your mate.

At first glance one might take Crussell's work as an exercise in ego exposition, but he deserves credit for mapping both successes and failures. He says that the works are designed to draw viewers into the dialogue, causing them to examine their own relationships and the influence they exert on their lives. Lifeline, roughly 25 feet long, chronicles several of the artist’s relationships and how long they lasted. Crussell likens his works, covered as they are with letters and words, to the artist books he made at the beginning of his creative journey.

It seems these artists, like many others among us, are finding their creative path by retreating into their own space, and drawing on the vicissitudes of their personal lives. Perhaps we have seen too little of this of late, and these artists reflect that an unspoken edict banning highly personal art is lifting. One can be hopeful that such collective soul searching will provide fresh aesthetic revelations.