at the Museum of Contemporary Art

In the early 80s Chicago-born sculptor Donald Lipski began creating poetic juxtapositions of found materials. His strategies were simple. He combined such objects as shoes, pails, flags, light bulbs, books, and airplane propellers by tying, wrapping, or gluing them together with incongruous materials–wire, wax, string, steel wool. Lipski’s choices appeared arbitrary, yet the contrasting materials had a visual certitude, as if the disparate items had been joined by fate.

Many of Lipski’s recent pieces have been based on specific themes. “The Bells,” now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, not only brings Lipski’s views on spirituality to the fore but adds the dimension of sound to his repertoire. The sight-and-sound ensemble of four sculptures takes up two large gallery spaces on the first floor of the MCA.

Commissioned by the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, “The Bells” was conceived when curator Jan Riley suggested Lipski use materials from a Cincinnati-based manufacturer. Lipski visited several sites but was most intrigued by the Verdin Bell Company–manufacturer of bells, clock towers, and steeples–because of bells’ connotations. Eventually the work evolved into a collaborative effort–composer Brad Fiedel created an electronic score of orchestrated bell chimes–employing various types of religious iconography.

Because the work was originally made for another space, the placement of the pieces in the MCA feels awkward. In one gallery there is too much space, in the other too little–making the work look poorly considered.

Leaves of Grass, which takes up almost all the space in one gallery, nearly overwhelms its smaller companion, In Memory of Silent Deeds. This large piece, made from two fiberglass church steeples joined in the middle and lying on their sides, is draped with silk chiffon and moves up and down every 15 minutes like a teeter-totter. The title–a reference to Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, which celebrates the godliness of earthly joy–sharply contrasts with the heavy-handed image. Lipski’s Leaves of Grass, shrouded and on its side, looks like a dormant missile, a challenge to the sanctity of Christian hierarchy.

More interesting in form and concept, and somehow more honest and less didactic, is In Memory of Silent Deeds, an old, large, worn church bell. Lipski has covered it with smaller hand bells, all of which are heavily rigged with wires and electronic strikers, which gives the piece a rich tactile quality. In contrast to Leaves of Grass, this piece speaks nostalgically of religious memorabilia and echoes the visual poetics of Lipski’s earlier work: he has often covered an object with disparate materials. The title refers to the bell’s inscription–“Silent in the Memory of Andrew Deeds, Jr. 1909-1917”–a memorial to a child who died. Originally made without a clapper, the bell has been reinvigorated with an electronic simulated bell on the inside and mounted on a wheeled tripod, which makes the work feel animated.

In the next gallery is Der Kleiner Bells, a large cage like a jail enclosing the electronic control panels that activate the real bells fixed to the pieces–this is the “guts” of “The Bells.” Several bars of the cage have been replaced with metal chimes and electronically rigged with strikers, so the piece is itself wired for sound. Large and cumbersome, this work is something of a stretch aesthetically and metaphorically. It’s obviously a security device for the equipment, a fact that obscures any deeper reading.

In the corner of the gallery is the fourth piece, The Belles, a group of eight faceless nuns whose habits have been draped with lavender tulle. Lifesize and equidistant from one another, they are mounted with medium-sized carillon bells in their chests. Because this piece features the human figure, it has enormous potential for meaning. Yet the presentation is disappointing, partly because the space overwhelms the figures. They look weak–mere starched clothing or theatrical costumes.

All too apparent are the electronic workings of all the pieces. Because Lipski has such a gift for giving cohesion to disparate materials, this unintegrated technical paraphernalia is disconcerting. The project’s technical side seems to stifle Lipski’s usual visual poetry.

Brad Fiedel’s sound composition is the most exciting aspect of “The Bells.” Groups of bells affixed to the sculptures go off simultaneously or at different times, activating the space in a way the sculpture doesn’t. One can hear the familiar sound of Sunday church bells in some of the chimes as well as Stephen Foster melodies and a variety of cacophonous sounds. At times the sound so engulfs the galleries that it almost takes on a physical presence.

Accompanying “The Bells” is a 25-minute video, most of which Lipski narrates, in which he provides useful reflections on his own religious views–he was raised a Reform Jew–and those of his Catholic wife, and on how their experiences have acted as catalysts for the work. Lipski says, for instance, that Leaves of Grass reflects his pantheistic philosophy. Recalling an old friend who is presently in jail, Lipski considers the sense of imprisonment in Der Kleiner Bells and deems himself fortunate to be an artist pursuing a form of rebellion that society sanctions. Speaking of The Belles, he recounts a story his wife told him about when she was a young girl and presented a play to a group of cloistered nuns: when the curtain was raised, the girls in the play found themselves separated from the audience by steel bars. While this discussion helps to explain the generation of Lipski’s pieces, the profundity of his observations is not matched by the sculptures themselves.

To some extent, Lipski’s foray into the spiritual world has misled him. The iconographic way he’s chosen to represent the images belies the richness of his abilities as an artist. Yet he’s taken a dramatic step by including sound, and “The Bells” is an ambitious piece that deserves to be seen and heard.