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    Passionate Function
by Elisabeth Kley
"Mesita, " 1998
"Shrine, " 1998
"Ehecatl, " 1998
"Las Equinas Emplumadas, " 1998
Las Equinas Emplumadas
"Columnaquetzal, " 1998
Steve Keister, Mar. 6-Apr. 3, 1999, at Bill Maynes Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

Steve Keister's sculptures may seem, at first, to be trying to pass for tasteful design. In addition to behaving like sculptures conventionally do, his works also double as planters or altars, or cover a wall like decorative tiles or serve as a window screen. In addition, Keister is obsessed with pre-Columbian culture and his sculptures are imbued with the severity of a brooding tropical myth.

Keister assembles his works from units he casts from molds of the block-like styrofoam packing used for machine or electrical parts. Like Bruce Nauman's plaster impression of the space underneath a table, Keister's works transform absence into solid form. But this is only the beginning. Tailored to fill all available carton space, the styrofoam blocks become oddly reminiscent of pre-Columbian stone monuments once cast. Piled in diverse configurations, his complex bricks evoke an Aztec frieze as easily as the decorative elements on buildings by Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright.

Keister uses cement to harmonize with the gallery's heavy ceilings, floors and columns. Kan, a narrow border made from repeated three-part units placed along the edges where the floor meets the wall, insinuates itself into its surroundings as unnoticeably as a baseboard. Similarly, Las Grecas, fitted to the large wall facing the entrance to the gallery, consists of 306 white hydrostone panels cast from a six-part original. The resulting 1,836 elements create a textured surface that echoes the decorated walls of Mitla, the great Zapotec site near Oaxaca.

Shrine is a table-like configuration that holds two cactuses. The pattern of light and shadow in the intricately-shaped blocks seems to form a menacing face. The work is related to Brancusi's weathered wood and stone bases, but Keister puts a living plant where Brancusi would have put a sculpture. As vegetation grows out of corpses in the jungle, the Mayans believed that life grows out of death. For Keister, the living plants growing inside his ghostly casts of absent space take on a similar meaning.

In the gallery's rather gloomy, almost threatening light, the plants cast expressive, anthromorphic shadows. A flowering bromeliad in a terracotta pot sits at the top of Ehecatl (even the flowerpot is cast from a styrofoam mold). The bromeliad, a species of jungle plant that grows from trees, has its own tiny reservoir within its leaves. This water element is echoed by the turquoise ceramic tile inlaid in Chac Mool, a horizontal container that holds a snake plant. Mesita, an altarlike piece in the back room, is topped with an earthenware dish full of chilis grown by the artist on his studio roof. Like the bromeliad flower, the chilis are a deep bloody red, a reminder of the sacrificial rituals that were an essential part of pre-Columbian religion.

Three larger airy sculptures made of stacked blocks of colored translucent resin are also included in the show. Bubbles visible within their forms add to the feeling of lightness. Stele (amber) could be a golden standing Mexican god, while watery Columnaquetal is tinted in cooler shades of blue and green. Las Esquinas Emplumadas is the most colorful of all. Assembled from eight-piece units dyed in a rainbow of pastel shades, it covers a window overlooking the Hudson river. As light passes through the transparent material, it seems to glow, as gorgeous as the feathers of a bird of paradise.

Stunning as they are, the resin pieces have a knowing air of postmodern hipness that grates a bit against the stark, ritualistic drama of the heavier work in cement and hydrostone. In the '80s, Keister was known for sculptures made from materials like fur, shells, resin and paint. Hung from the ceiling with transparent thread, they hovered in the air like strange UFOs. He was featured in the 1981 Whitney Biennial, had solo exhibitions at Gagosian in Los Angeles in 1982 and at Blum-Helman Warehouse in New York in 1986 and 1988, and then did not have another one person show until 1996, also at Bill Maynes. As Keister continues to reinvent his work, art historical sophistication is beginning to give way to something the pre-Columbian artists knew very well: the un-self-conscious power of functional objects made to serve a passionate belief.

ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.