When Form Precedes Function

As a sculptural element, wood is warm and inviting to the touch. Humble yet elegant, naturally marked by time, wood sculpture connotes a long-standing tradition of noble craftsmanship. But sculptor Ingrid Hartlieb often employs wood to recall an archaeological legacy wrought from other, more monumental materials. In her current exhibition at Bianca Lanza Gallery in Miami Beach, a group of five works that Hartlieb titles Distance Keepers stands on the floor in one corner. These resemble pedestals for Greek or Roman statuary, or chunks of broken columns. The sculptures, with the same dimensions as those ancient ruins, embody a tension between the infinite organic quality of wood and the ultimate ephemerality of manmade culture. Similarly, this tension exists in several smaller sculptures in the shapes of cornerstones and building blocks (more deconstructed architecture) that hang on the gallery's walls or rest on the counter of the back office. Two works called Chicago Rolls, made during the artist's short-term residency in that Midwestern city, look like slices of a dissected pillar.

Hartlieb uses oak, lime, spruce, pine, and other woods native to the forests around Stuttgart, Germany, where she lives and works, to create her powerfully suggestive sculptures. She does not carve from solid trunks or strive for polished surfaces and smooth planes. Instead Hartlieb constructs her works from small pieces of planks, boards, and poles, which she glues together and stacks in layers. Their edges remain deliberately uneven, their surfaces slightly marred; the artist coats her sculptures with beeswax, and sometimes covers them with an impermeable coat of lead. Her geometric shapes are never precise: Sides are slanted, corners rounded. She constantly breaks down structures, stripping away scientific -- or civilized -- vocabularies to reveal the organic origins of these forms. The same works that suggest archaeological finds also resemble beehives, stones, crystals, or fragments of the human body.

In the middle of the gallery, two works, Doline I and Doline II -- the largest in the show A specifically refer to patterns of environmental growth and decline. Hollow and painted black inside, these nestlike structures A like other Hartlieb works here, layered and made from wood remnants A represent sinkholes in the floors of German forests caused by erosion. A look inside them reveals how the stacked layers lace together. The technique resembles that of a beaver's dam, while also bringing to mind Dante's concentric circles of Hell.

Two large drawings done in black oil-based pastel (Constructions) and several small, heavy iron maquettes for the wood sculptures (Test Pieces) evidence Hartlieb's working process. Through these drawings and models, she experiments with dimension and perspective, investigating the history of forms and the contrasts inherent within them: open and closed, light and heavy, classical and modern, organic and industrial, constructed and demolished. Ultimately such scrutiny helps her create the symbolic sculpture garden of wooden forms that represents her take on the development and demise of Western civilization.

Hartlieb's interest in the evolution of forms as a metaphor for progress and decline is most succinctly stated in a wall triptych hanging at the front of the gallery. Titled Threefold Is the Step of Time, it represents the past, present, and future. Here the past takes the form of a big lead slab, covered with impressed lines and raised tomblike shapes. A wooden shield shaped like a turtle shell represents the present. Scored with cuts and nicks, like a ball that has been passed through the hands of history, it calls out to be touched. A copper square, smaller and placed slightly apart from the two other elements of the work, stands for the future. The more delicate material and diminutive size of this piece bode darkly. But the artist shows some optimism for what's to come. The square is hollow, waiting to be filled.

This triptych, like the rest of the sculptures, drawings, and models in this small but masterful show of Hartlieb's work, uses the language of materials to recount the prehistory of forms.

Artyfacts
A woman of quiet courage and constant dignity, Cuban painter Antonia Eiriz was a role model for younger artists on the island in their fight for freedom of expression. Eiriz refused to compromise when she came under pressure from the revolutionary government in the late Sixties for making paintings that carried a subtly critical message. Rather than bow to censorship, in 1969 she simply chose not to paint at all. Her conviction and honesty were exemplary, her talent extraordinary, and among artists in Cuba she became legendary. Eiriz died of a heart attack in Miami on March 9 at age 65.

Her figurative works painted in a dramatic expressionist style are, as Miami-based critic Giulio Blanc has written, "a reflection of an unjust and cruel world, of man as a victim of his own phantoms." In one of her best-known paintings, La muerte en pelota (the title translates as both Death at Play and Death Unclothed), a baseball pitcher winds up as a crowd of monstrous-looking fans cheer him on. Farther up in the bleachers, empty faces stare out blankly. In an important work called La anunciacion (The Annunciation), a grotesque exterminating angel surprises a seamstress at work. Other Eiriz paintings show beastly orators gesturing madly at featureless audiences. Government officials considered the subject matter of these works inappropriate and pressured Eiriz to change her style. Instead, she quit painting.

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