Walk into the back room of Tip Toland's exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum and there's a naked old woman lying on her side on the floor, her back to the entrance.

It's impossible to stand over her. One is compelled to drop to a squat. And then it is impossible not to move closer, toward her face.

This woman is not alive. She is a work of art. She is called Milk for the Butter Thief and made of stoneware, paint, and pastel; her hair is sheep's wool. It is tempting to say, rather than "not alive," that this woman is not real, but she is. She has unbelievable presence. Docents at the gallery say that visitors—especially women—stand over her and cry.

Nothing is beautified, but everything about her is beautiful. The way her nipple is submerged in her own sagging flesh, the gently prayerful position of the hands, the twin hollows in the cheek and the hip, labia barely appearing between her legs on her back side. She is as alive as deathly. She could be the only object on display at Bellevue Arts Museum right now. She could carry an entire museum on her sleeping weight.

The whole exhibition, called Melt, the Figure in Clay, contains six figures made in 2007 and 2008 by the artist, who herself is a slender older woman (age 58; sometimes she uses her own body as a model, but not in this show). She teaches at Gage Academy of Art and shows at Pacini Lubel Gallery (she was also a Stranger Genius Award shortlister in 2007). When she's on, the art is ferocious. Nothing else I've seen quite touches Milk for the Butter Thief, but she regularly produces brave work, skilled and utterly unacademic. (Hyperrealist sculptors like Ron Mueck and Duane Hanson seem gimmicky and theoretical by comparison.)

Support The Stranger

Toland's subjects are the very old and the very young, and Toland can be sentimental. A young boy with his hands down his pants and an old man playing a child's violin at BAM are so sweet that they veer into kitsch. Far more interesting are a strange young girl with ancient-looking eyes wearing ugly red wax lips and an ecstatic yet robotic naked woman on a moving swing (her dentures are real, listed on the wall label).

Toland's sculptures are a reassurance to those who are made uncomfortable by skill in art. Skill can be obnoxious; it can be shallow. But great skill is invisible. And at that point, where Toland is working with Milk for the Butter Thief, all the world falls away from the art as you look at it. There is nothing else. recommended