Leah Poller: Bed…Not Bored

at Portals Ltd., through April 6

Part kitschy collectibles, part punning one-liners, Leah Poller’s miniature bronze sculptures of beds mix representation, symbolic forms, and found objects in a way that skirts the fringes of, well, bad art. But whereas bad artists will do anything for effect–to amuse, arouse, or shock–Poller systematically brings together diverse objects and meanings to create works that are powerful and also fun, eliciting a smile while engaging the intellect.

Brass Bed is a silly pun on “brass band”; toy trumpets are the bed’s legs, two tubas make up the headboard, and the bedspread is an opened music book. The instruments’ curves echo each other, and the silver, gray, and black color scheme also unifies the disparate elements. The work’s visual unity gives it an odd power; it’s a joke, but also a bit like a fetish object–one suspects it would start tooting if one could only find the on switch.

The 19 beds now on view at Portals gallery are part of a larger series that Poller began a year ago called “One Hundred and One Beds,” a fanciful allusion to surrealist Max Ernst’s collage novel The Hundred Headless Woman. While the series numbers about 30 so far, Poller has already come up with more than 100 titles.

The 52-year-old Poller recalls being greatly impressed by the stone sculptures and ceramics during an early visit to the Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City. She was stunned to find the ancient works “so spiritually powerful, so connected to some unspoken language of humanity” that they overwhelmed the “aesthetic” European paintings with which she was familiar. Moving to Paris, she enrolled in the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Beaux Arts, where she received traditional training in figurative sculpture, though the sculptures she did subsequently–she remained in Paris for 18 years, returning to the U.S. in 1990–don’t sound particularly traditional. In one, she recalls, “a young girl who was beautiful was self-conscious about that so I made her shoulders like the crenellated walls of a fortress,” a “metamorphosis” effect she employed with other figures as well.

These beds are cast in bronze from models Poller makes; colored pigment mixed with acid is then applied to the hot metal. The often brilliantly colored results still reveal the underlying metal; each piece has a solidity that is the opposite of the almost translucent, illusionistic colors of much of Western painting. Instead of colors that lead one beyond their materiality, Poller’s colors gravitate to the metal they adhere to, giving her pieces a weighty presence.

It seems appropriate that a key artistic inspiration was pre-Columbian statues of gods and demons, for the richness of these beds comes from the interaction between their humorous plays on representation and an oddly atavistic, incantatory quality that lies beneath their almost cartoonish surfaces. In Bedroll the body of the bed is an open-faced submarine sandwich. The top of the sliced roll ends at the bed’s center, where it meets a row of three tomato slices and lettuce and Swiss cheese, all in bronze. The resulting cleft runs along the edge of the bed to the headboard, a small packet marked “ketchup” and a wall of vaguely yellow ruffled potato chips. There’s an endearingly over-the-top nuttiness to this level of realism in bronze; yet these metal potato chips also suggest other things–rock faces, geometric abstractions. They come close to being symbols without referents.

Throughout the series, Poller lets her love of puns and wordplay push her pieces beyond the most obvious suggestion in their titles: “Whatever you’d imagine it would be is not what I make it,” she says, hoping her strategy involves viewers in the process of creating meaning. “I’d rather make a ‘flour bed’ and have somebody think it’s the wrong one and react than make the one they expect and have no reaction at all.” Indeed, Flour Bed is not a bed of flowers, the obvious pun, but a bed of flour–part of a deep-dish apple pie, with rolling pins for legs. In Bed Post, a cliched vacation postcard (“wish you were here”) forms the main body, while tropical tree trunks are the bedposts. Murphy Bed seemed obscure to me–a bed with an early American flag descending from a cabinet, a baby doll on top–until it was explained as a reference to Dan Quayle’s attack on TV’s Murphy Brown; the baby is hers and the circa 1808 cabinet a reference to Quayle’s retro views. Ravie-au-Lit translates as “thrilled in bed,” but the base is cast from pasta molds, the bedcover from a ravioli sheet; the title sounds like “ravioli.”

There is something deconstructive about the free play allowed words, objects, and symbols in Poller’s beds. By always pushing the limits, she not only creates surprise and humor but suggests that the power of the art object transcends any of the specific meanings that can be attached to it.

In much of representational painting one looks through the surface to some imaginary view of the real world, while an Olmec stone sculpture may seem to invoke or embody the god it depicts. Poller plays these opposite aesthetics against each other. She uses sculpture to represent, yet she breaks the illusion by incorporating actual objects. Each element can be read in several ways: a solid bronze slab, a bed whose surface is like a board, an actual postcard, a painted image of a postcard. Each work seems to reverse direction repeatedly until the only presence left is that of the artist as creator, almost as shaman.

This effect is central in Bed=Palette. Six tiny bronze beds, each covered with a different color bedspread, sit on a cast of a palette. The spreads not only cover the beds but spill over onto the palette that acts as the floor; the beds themselves are thus likened to the daubs of pigment on a painter’s palette. Poller’s usual order is reversed; whereas other pieces have color applied to them, here the beds seems to serve the artist as sources of color.

Perhaps the strongest work is Flagrant Delit, which might be mispronounced as “flagrant delight” in English but in French is a legal phrase, much used in divorce cases, meaning caught in the sex act. A richly canopied bed, suggestive of a well-appointed whorehouse, is supported by four women’s legs in black red-laced high-heeled boots. Two hands holding a large camera emerge from under the covers. The customary direction of the lens is reversed; the person in bed has taken over the photographer’s camera, the observed becomes the observer. The viewer is now the victim, his voyeuristic gaze returned by the camera, a reversal of expectations that strikes the viewer with a hint of a powerful glare from an Aztec god.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of “Flagrant Delit” and “Brass Bed”.