ORIGINATION Mysterious morphs on a glowing table. Basil Childers

Laura Fritz
Soil, 112 Third Ave S, 264-8061
Through May 29.

Hans Bellmer was a surrealist. He constructed doll-like works that he called poupées, aggregate creatures made from female mannequin parts, lonesome pieces of machinery and other semi-functional or almost-anthropomorphic things. Typical of surrealist art, Bellmer's dolls were meant to draw a compulsive recognition-phantoms of familiars liberated from a deep, archetypal memory and then propelled toward pure realization. Surrealist expression strove to trump social institutions (read: Catholic) and psycho-sexual confines (read: mother), which were/are anything but mutually exclusive. Bellmer wholeheartedly dismantled these constructs, and then reassembled them as disturbing autowomen. They were mostly sculptural installations splayed across striped mattresses or pinned precariously against a wall-since the forms could not support themselves (like a woman). All deconstruction aside, images of his work are haunting.

Today, Laura Fritz' installation Perspect, at Soil, similarly disturbs and rattles any serenity from the timid mind. Absent are the surrealists' psycho issues, but aggressively present is the role of "art as disturber." Her six pieces provoke an uncanny semi-recognition, an uncanniness subsumed and agitated by the quiet softness of the room's monochromatic aesthetic.

Art installations involve behavioral demands on the participant. Think Turrell's room of light at the Henry last year: take shoes off, hang out in glowy room, broaden life's boundaries. Or most video installations, which require the viewer to steal into a dark room. Or blazing orange-red panels of fabric marching for miles through Central Park. The success of an installation lies partly in the charm of that behavioral manipulation. Fritz' darkened room at Soil glides past those basic demands-walk this way, or sneak in here-to an experience where the charm is sinister, discomfiting, and predominantly fantastical.

The room is darkened, the windows blackened, and the boxes are lit from within, giving the displays a frightening sci-fi radiance. Black tables and boxes present mysterious morphs atop or within them. The experience becomes a game of identification. The objects' origins are not at all obvious. Animal, vegetable, mineral? Alive? Recently alive? Byproduct of life? The transportation from art gallery to evil laboratory happens quickly.

The pieces present morbidity, and they are tidy, discreet, balanced compositions. A table titled Origination has several dozen opalescent spheroids resting on a luminous surface. Sparkling like iridescent sea urchins, this piece is the happiest and most alluring in the room. But that is where the whimsy ends. The construction is reminiscent of a petri dish; perhaps these are the baby versions of unrealized aliens.

The other pieces are yet more unnerving.

For instance, video installations Section 1 and Section 4 are floor-level black boxes with translucent panes through which a creature seems sometimes visible. You wonder: Is that a REAL moth flitting around in that box? Is there a supply of moths for the installation? Is it a looped reel of film? No, something is definitely inside, bumping up against the surface, just as confused as the spectator.

Indication is a skinny black table that presents bits of a laboratory scene midway through an experiment. A set of specimens quiver in what appear to be waning moments of life, yet simultaneously, because they are not quite recognizable, they seem devoid of life. Rather, they look like inchoate attempts at an unmet goal; they bear an uncanny resemblance to something else. This one piece most succinctly deploys the surreal value of the exhibit: The viewer collaborates with the artist in the idea that a third entity has orchestrated these creations. For surrealists, the mighty subconscious gushed from the artist-art was proof of its expression. In Perspect, the viewer experiences the works as nefarious expressions of a busy malevolence. The child may detect a mad scientist; the adult may see a dictator. But everywhere is depreciation and doom. This dark and intangible omniscience is the warp of the installation.

Exploring the uncanny was the modus operandi of the surrealists and of a certain Austrian psychoanalyst who will be ardently avoided here. Hal Foster presents the clearest understanding of the uncanny in surrealist art in his goddamned and glorious book Compulsive Beauty (1993): "I believe this concept [that comprehends surrealism] to be the uncanny, that is to say, a concern with events in which repressed material returns in ways that disrupt unitary identity, aesthetic norms, and social order." Supposition of Fritz' "repressed material" isn't really pertinent here. More important is experiencing the semi-recognition, the disrupted identity provoked by her art. Like Bellmer's poupées, the specimens of Perspect are some maligned force's progeny. The installation is that force's lair. ■