at Artemisia

We think of sight as the most important means of experiencing paintings and sculptures–and in the case of representational painting, which relies heavily on visual illusions, sight is primary. But the sense of touch plays a major if not always obvious role in both the creation and understanding of works of art. As photographic reproductions make clear, in the absence of physical apprehension of scale, space, and surfaces, a piece can seem curiously drained or deadened. It was a surprise to me, for instance, to see the sensual surfaces of Mondrian’s paintings in a show at the Art Institute years ago–they were a far cry from the glossy, smooth images in art-history textbooks. The sense of touch is especially important to sculpture because, as Herbert Read has written, it is “an art of palpation–an art that gives satisfaction in the touching and handling of objects.”

Toi Ungkavatanapong, whose sculptures are on view at Artemisia this month, is a sculptor from Ohio who is cognizant of the sense of touch and uses it to advantage in his work. Exhibited in the gallery’s large main room are seven wall-mounted sculptures constructed from a variety of materials: wood, plaster, wire, string, metal, and paint. Most of these sculptures consist of two or more discrete elements of widely varying sizes, and none is freestanding–they’re either attached directly to the wall or placed on a shelf. They don’t project very far into the room and are relatively static. Ungkavatanapong doesn’t create much movement within his sculptures; he relies mostly on stable squares and rectangles for his forms.

If it weren’t for the artist’s close attention to surfaces we might almost consider these sculptures abstract. Ungkavatanapong often paints, sands, and incises his materials, and sometimes he uses found objects that already have distinct textures, allowing them to remain as they are or altering them only slightly. The resulting surface variations recall those of the human body–protruding bones, Adam’s apples, nipples, navels–and are the main expressive element of Ungkavatanapong’s work. They give each simple form a unique presence or personality.

But perhaps it isn’t fair to say that Ungkavatanapong’s sculptures lack movement. It’s more true to say that their movements are understated, restrained. This is so, for example, in Don’t Hit My Bumps. A narrow white vertical slab, approximately six feet high, a foot deep, and five inches wide, projects at a right angle from the wall, mounted about two feet off the floor. But it isn’t directly attached to the gallery wall–a charred black two-by-four is wedged in between it and the wall.

The tall white shape looks like a rather large shelf that’s been upended and covered with a thin layer of plaster. Its left and right sides are relatively smooth and uneventful, but the front plane, closest to the viewer and therefore most vulnerable, contains a great deal of surface activity. A layer of dark red paint under the plaster is revealed here and there in small patches where the plaster has been sanded away. In other places the plaster has been built up to create protuberances like vertebrae. With its red patches like scars, its strange bumps, its uncertain position, hovering off the ground, and the black piece of wood that seems to simultaneously push it away from and join it to the wall, this white plank is ungainly and awkward. It takes its place in the room in a shy, almost unwilling manner, straddling a line between figuration and abstraction.

The seven separate objects that make up My Friends . . . I’m Lonely Too . . . occupy a similar zone: they’re mostly abstract but have quasi-figurative features. These relatively small objects–none is bigger than two feet in any direction–are constructed of branches, plaster, string, wires, metal rods, old pieces of wood, and paint. All seven are hung in a row at eye level across one wall of the gallery; each is radically different from the others. One looks as though it was originally a cutting board, with a hole at the top for hanging, but Ungkavatanapong has built up plaster over its surface so that it swells outward, thicker at the bottom. Light blue, dark brown, and black paint have been layered over the plaster, then sanded away in places; the resulting mottled but smooth surface looks like an unidentifiable exoskeleton. A dark wire emanates from the bottom of the form, bent around in an irregular spiral like a tail or strange tentacle.

Another object in My Friends . . . I’m Lonely Too . . . is a hollow box about one foot tall, one foot deep, and two feet wide made of thin iron rods, branches stripped of bark, and forming the front plane, horizontal rows of fragile-looking strips of wood. The whole thing has the appearance of a ramshackle cage, broken and ineffectual since its top and bottom are completely open. Though not overtly representational, it also suggests a rib cage–the stacked strips of thin wood in front resemble delicate ribs–or an absurd kind of armor.

Two other objects in this group are also hollow: a gray vertical cylinder has a rough barklike exterior and a smooth white plaster interior, and a solid plaster cube painted a reddish brown has a hole in the vertical plane facing the viewer. Though these two objects allow a view into their interiors, they reveal little about themselves–one looks inside only to see smooth white walls. Once again, Ungkavatanapong’s seemingly abstract forms have correlations with the body: the womblike objects can be thought of as feminine, while some of the others–one, for example, that looks like a foot-tall matchstick hanging upside down–can be seen as masculine. But aside from their figurative associations and their genesis from found objects these seven pieces have little in common, and one wonders what brings them together into a group.

Another piece, Guaranteed to Satisfy, also consists of a row of small objects, six in all. Some of these–a shoe last, for example, mounted heel upward on the wall with wire tied around its center like a belt around a waist–recall the human figure. Others, such as a couple of small metal cubes that sprout spirals and budlike cones, parallel plant forms. Like Ungkavatanapong’s other pieces, each has a distinct surface and shape that differentiate it from its neighbors. The confident assertion of the title is true on one level–as sculptures, they do satisfy our sense of touch. But on another level the title is ironic: it suggests that these quirky objects are intended to “fit in” somehow, to be viewed as desirable, but their inscrutability makes such acceptance unlikely.

The other pieces in the show consist of pairs of constructed objects, usually cubes of varying proportions. Each object features minute but rich textural variations; each is an extremely individualized entity having a tenuous connection to its mate. Overall, the pessimistic or at least melancholy tone is offset by the humor to be found in the odd shapes and ironic titles.

Because most of Ungkavatanapong’s sculptures are relatively flat, Don’t Hit My Bumps literally stands out, projecting its vulnerable front surface into the room. The artist’s exceptional treatment of palpable surfaces, his ability to transform geometric forms and found objects, and his quiet sense of humor are all strengths. But his use of space is tentative–it would be interesting to see what might result if he developed its expressive potential further, as he has done in Don’t Hit My Bumps.