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Pat Keck’s undead, plus Joe Johnson, Bert Antonio, and Gary Green
By CHRISTOPHER MILLIS  |  June 12, 2007
SPINNING DIZZY: Still and still moving, Pat
Keck’s creation will leave you dizzy.

For most figurative sculptors, the human form — no matter how distended, abstracted, degraded, or bio-engineered — implies human life. Pat Keck isn’t like most figurative sculptors. In their doll-like stiffness and manufactured hair, her shamelessly wooden, glossily painted, unmistakably hand-hewn figures suggest a descent into the underworld. Bloodless, elongate, and frozen in their expressions, Keck’s people — who in her current show at the Genovese/Sullivan Gallery include one riotous woman, a chainsmoking man, two spinning zombies, a straitjacketed asylum escapee, and an army of one-legged soldiers — appear to have risen from their coffins, maniacal veterans of the legions of the undead.

For most figurative sculptors, moreover, movement is suggested through gesture and form momentarily arrested by stillness. For Keck, movement isn’t suggested, it’s real, and it typically comes about when you interact with one of her delightfully diabolical creations. Press the protruding belly button of Man on a Pole and his red, salamander tongue sticks out; flip the switch beneath Spinning Sleeping or Spinning Dizzy and the miniature men on the circular, circus-inspired pedestals go into their respective tailspins. Give a shove to one of the six oversized dice in Future and watch the wild woman in the red dress and costume pearls go round and round on the roulette wheel she straddles. It isn’t just these creatures’ movements that gives them their risen-from-the-dead ambiance — it’s that while they’re in motion, they’re also holding still. Smoking Man’s lips don’t purse and his cheeks don’t contract, though smoke from his butt fills the air; the two Spinning figurines’ arms grip their sides despite their gyrations, and for all that her arms extend vertically like a hysterical actress taking a bow, Fortune’s eyes never blink and her wrists never bend as she circles round like a top. Like roller-coaster riders fixed to their seats at some hellish carnival, Keck’s people are both motionless and catapulting at the same time.

Three of the works in the show don’t move at all, and in some ways they’re the best: they feel as if they were about to explode. Perched on a stepladder so that he meets you at eye level, Smoking Man never reaches for the cigarette that burns between his yellow teeth, but if Keck had wanted him to, he would — she’s a master engineer capable of making a decapitated man drum his fingers while playing solitaire (Big Head) or a fortune teller sit upright and ring a bell (Answer Man). Instead, her version of the Marlboro man in a black outfit and top hat sits and stares and smokes — gray-skinned, jaundice-eyed, and sufficiently emaciated to look as if his next toke might come through an oxygen mask. He lives for his poison.

More powerful still is One-Legged Army (2007). A glass-fronted, red-painted wooden box about the size of a breadbox houses tightly packed, multiple rows of nine-inch-tall soldiers whose faces, uniforms, and prostheses are the same matt black. Identical in height, expression, and posture, the troops are differentiated by their equipment. Some carry tweezers for guns, others miniature saw blades and drill bits. Nail clippers, dental picks, broken Swiss Army knives, tool chests, and sewing-box artifacts that a shrunken militia might employ in battle find their way onto the soldiers’ backs and belts and into their hands. If Athena and not Pandora had had a box, this would be it. Peer into the glass encasement and you’ll discover that the artist hasn’t assembled a mere squadron — it’s an army that extends infinitely. By manipulating mirrors at the back of the box, Keck makes her handicapped recruits appear to go on forever. What at first seems to be contained and creepily funny becomes unsettling when you realize that the army is limitless, the death march eternal.

Another nine-inch figurine, this one white as fear and immobile as a stalagmite, stands at the raised end of a small, gray seesaw in a straitjacket; weighing down the other end of the seesaw is a single white feather. In lesser hands, Unbalance Ghost would be a one-liner; with Keck, it’s another distillation of a passionate, dark, iconoclastic, and playful spirit.

Sharing the gallery space with Pat Keck are the cerebral, self-effacing abstract paintings of Bert Antonio. These creations look like imaginative solutions to problems Antonio has made up — the dominant shape in one canvas finds its analogue in a cut-out that occupies the next. Antonio is fond of positioning multiple canvases around a central one to form a larger whole — they read like clocks from a civilization that had less interest in telling time than in experiencing it.

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