Somatic Relations
James Harris Gallery, 903-6220.
Through Aug 30.

What science and man have torn asunder, Patrick Holderfield joins.

Things that don't go together are put together: a tiny car seems to vomit big, pink, fleshy organs; a roomful of toys melts into a single bulbous object, covered with a translucent, white sheet of plastic, like a rice-paper wrap over a spring roll; piñatas are joined like Siamese twins.

The latter is what you probably notice first when you walk into Holderfield's fine new show, Somatic Relations. One is a pair of bright-eyed yellow horsies joined at the rear end, looking as if they might like to run in opposite directions. The other is a set of birds with only three feet between them and one beak; if you were inclined to romanticize things, you could say they were lovebirds. But you would have to be particularly delusional, because this work isn't romantic at all.

In fact, it's extremely personal, made universal through art's Big Themes: disease, religion, identity, sex. The show's title suggests that the artist tends toward the body rather than the soul--but in this case it's the soul's issues given body, and the souls in question are inanimate objects. It's a science beyond science. Anyone who has worried that inanimate objects might be lonely or angry or disappointed (as a child, I ate all my peas because I worried about the dejection of peas left on the plate) will feel at home here. Holderfield's objects are vulnerable, sick, and at times perhaps a little angry.

(I'd also like to point out Holderfield's talent for titling his shows. His last exhibition was called Dehiscence, a word of great poetry, which means the quality of something popping or splitting, like a suture or a flower bud.

There's a tall shaft of beautifully grained wood sawed in two and rejoined; the site of the wound gushes red and gooey. This piece could also be seen as a broken crucifix, a synecdoche for the pain of Christ, human agony transferred to an object. There may be no better contemporary representation of both deep religious feeling and ambivalence, powerful because, at the same time, it investigates the failure of symbols to truly embody the depth of human feeling. A similar piece--a white shaft that seems to have bludgeoned its way through the gallery wall--is surrounded by forms that cartoonishly suggest the motion of the breakthrough. Under the shaft, there's a small but definite phallic shape, confirming our collective cultural suspicion that all penetrations are sexual.

Somatic Relations is more like a single installation than a set of discrete works. It's like a very formal poem, a sestina or a villanelle, in which each piece reinforces something you might think about another. The potential energy of the horses pulling apart is reflected in the melted and condensed toys; the otherness suggested by the pain of dead wood echoes through the organically joined piñatas.

And then there are Holderfield's drawings, which are large and generously spaced, with areas of intense concentration and layering of recognizable and unidentifiable objects: large, blank expanses with single floating marks and occasional blurts of color. These works stand alone, but they can also be seen as maps in which sense depends on the careful reading and personal projection of the viewer. And then, when you step back from the whole show and give it a long look, you realize that it reads like one of those drawings: airy, bright and busy here, stark and lonely there.

Holderfield is a thoughtful artist. Those of us whose mouths run ahead of our brains tend to interrupt people like him too frequently, if only because talking to him results in an eruption of ideas we can't wait to hear ourselves say aloud. Similarly, the temptation of his work is to understand it too easily. But this is a show that runs deeper than first impressions, however favorable they are. It needs to be absorbed, lived with, re-read. What seems merry and cute on one day may very well appear painful and violent the next; what first makes you sick to your stomach might later make you hungry. It's an apt visual analogue of the shifting heart of personal feelings, cutting you with one edge and soothing you--however perversely--with the other.

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