"Ah fuck it, I love you," Debra Baxter sighs in mock defeat. She is offhandedly impersonating Vocal Cords (I Love You), her sculptural arrangement of three dwindling alabaster columns on a pedestal. They're windpipes, topped by exposed vocal cords in the process of forming those three potentially damning words. Throughout Yielded, SOIL's handsome and smart January show with Robert de Saint Phalle, Baxter rejects past tendencies for playing it safe.
Fully about the body and embodiment, Baxter's latest work is marked by complex turns. Her sculptures are objects of semiabstraction, narrative pieces both gentle and hard, extremely precise yet never formalist. A distinction is made between anatomical study and a body/self metaphor: The sculptures are at once addressing the body as a vehicle of constraint while allowing for its phenomenological potential.
Baxter's previous work has been preoccupied with protecting the self and the body from potential harm. Acts and moments that would allow for vulnerability have been dangerous. Enclosure has been more necessary than committed engagement. In Yielded, Baxter tentatively, though clearly, moves away from safe havens and familiar shelters. This work is about embracing a willful, actualized self.
There is a role model in the room. Untitled (Gene Simmons Inspires Me), the show's exuberant, hilarious front-of-room piece, is a sculpture of the iconic, giant tongue resting on some old weathered foam, a kind of homemade stage fit for that awesomely vile thing. It's doubtful that Baxter is completely taken with the overall aesthetic, but the abject shamelessness, the glorified confidence of Simmons's stage presence, is of great appeal. It is also on the other end of the spectrum from Baxter's more personal works.
Untitled (Neck Crack), first seen at Aqua Art Miami, is chin-lifted and fragile. It is based on one portion of the artist's triptych video projection, Sweetness. In one of the looped videos, her bare chest and neck rises and falls with inhaled and exhaled breath. Her heaving, sweaty body seems to be illuminated only by candlelight, and yet, coming out of Baxter's previous work, the piece is less erotic than it is commandingly unsheltered. The concurrent sculpture of the raised neck, held in stillness, distills a sense of defenselessness. There is a gorgeous defiance in this work.
Like Baxter, Brooklyn artist Robert de Saint Phalle's sculptures are in the midst of a progression from protection to free exposure and movement. Rather than scrutinizing the corporeal, de Saint Phalle (nephew of renowned sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle) is exploring the ways in which identities can be made and made real.
A self-addressed box to de Saint Phalle sits in a corner of the room. On the edge of the cardboard lid a mockingbird is perched slightly forward, a figure in preflight. Cast from the air-sinus system of the bird, the resulting body is surprisingly substantive in its form. "Songbirds are actually about 60 percent air," de Saint Phalle advertises at the opening. Emptiness and absence allow for the tangible construction of body, of a self.
Mockingbird chronicles a move toward exposure despite vulnerability. De Saint Phalle describes the box as skin, a container both unfilled and filled with air as possibility. The box also once served as a sort of air hearse, delivering the body of the original bird, from which the cast was made, to the artist. But perhaps hearse is incorrect: The bird arrived not for burial, but in order to transition, abstractly, from a creature known only as an anonymous imitator to a wholly new and unique thing altogether.
In striking contrast, Spider Hole is a sculpture on the verge of collapse. It is a refuge that looks more dangerous than safe. Yet the piece is formidable: a big chunk of "Hollywood-like" set (rock or wall), supported by a single column of fluorescent tube lighting. Perplexing and contradictory, it's a makeshift hideout that at a moment's notice could collapse and cover, protect or squash. The sculpture is a trap door: a source of potential safety and also a camouflaged vantage point for a predator. It's a great twist on the act of self-protection.
Despite the tendency toward fragility and, perhaps, to some degree because of it, there is a palpable strength and courage in these pieces. Mockingbird is admirably ludicrous in its notion to fly. Spider Hole may teeter on collapse, but it advertises and champions its existence with a single, bright light.