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Robert Lazzarini



Skull (iii)

Between Real and Imagined
by Jennifer Olshin

Robert Lazzarini, Oct. 25, 2003-Jan. 4, 2004, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Avenue, Richmond, Va. 23221

The first solo museum show dedicated to the work of the contemporary sculptor Robert Lazzarini, recently presented at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, brought together for the first time the full range of the artist's works made between 1997 and 2003. Emotionally evocative and visually arresting, the show included celebrated works like Payphone, which was one of the hits of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and the macabre Skulls, which the Whitney included in "BitStreams" in 2001, along with the early Violin (1997) and his latest work, Guns (2003).

Lazzarini uses axionomic distortion to reshape familiar objects, rendering them elusive and haunting. These sculptures are dramatically imbued with an organic quality. They seem alive. In one gallery, the mesmerizing Violin seems to float out from a wall. Stretching in space, the piece appears to be morphing, a series of restlessly alternating planes. With closer inspection, Violin is seen as a remarkably beautiful object crafted of figured woods, ebony and bone. It is a temporal object that will never play a note.

In Lazzarini's works, we are challenged to embrace a new set of rules, impossible rules. Chair (2000) is typically crafted, but skewed to the point that it nearly collapses in space. The sharply slanted Bell Atlantic Payphone (2002) illicits a sense of the irrecoverable. Its elongation reminds us of a stretched memory -- like returning to a house once lived in, where all the proportions seem to have been altered. Ultimately, Lazzarini sculptures are confounding, often disturbing.

Skulls (2000) is a set of four distortions of a human skull that possess inherent tensions and contradictions. Pushed to the brink of visual failure, they become shades, even whispers of their originals. As a result, they have little consistency and a bizarre dynamic. Skulls appear bold and inhabited from one vantage, but brittle and vaguely disappearing from another.

However steeped in age-old questions of mortality, existence and the ineluctability of our world, Lazzarini's works also reflect a concern with issues particular to our times. Nowhere is this more recognizable than with Guns (2003). In the last gallery of the show, four distorted guns were posited in mid air. Swiveling around with no clear trajectory, they are a chilling reminder that these guns are both the recent standard police issue as well as the weapon most commonly used by criminals in America.

The Virginia museum's encyclopedic collection provided an excellent backdrop for Lazzarini's work, which is rich with art historical associations. This context is explored by curator John Ravenal in an essay in the accompanying catalogue. Ravenal places Lazzarini's sculpture into the coda of art history, citing a range of influences from 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings to Donald Judd's powerful Minimalist works of the 1960s. (One source for Skulls is, of course, Hans Holbein's celebrated 1533 painting, The Ambassadors, now in the National Gallery, London.)

The show's beautiful catalogue, co-designed by the artist, reflects the economy of the exhibition and the rich surfaces of the objects. The color plates reference the object/ground relationship emphasized in the show. With no foreword or introduction, the catalogue generously invites us to view the work first and then read the curator's insights.

JENNIFER OLSHIN is director of the gallery at Ingrao, Inc., in New York.