Sharon Engelstein


Christina Linden

Sharon Engelstein, Ambiguous Paws, 2008; 3D print; 10 x 7 x 8 inches

Soft Head, 2008; nylon and forced air; 9 x 13 x 15 feet (inflated); image courtesy the artist

If fauna is defined as “a collective term applied to the animals or animal life of any particular region or epoch,” then Sharon Engelstein’s sculptures might be nominated to take over for our era. Replacing models less practical in terms of contemporary living (the saber-toothed tiger, ponies), Engelstein’s appealing, clean, safe, mobile/inflatable pets satisfy a need for something like creature comfort without any menace, mess or manure. Blow Job, an exhibition of sculpture and drawings, offers a few versions of contemporary fauna to choose from.

From the street, through the gallery’s plate-glass window, we catch a glimpse of a showy option: a good choice for the ostentatious or for people with large yards. Soft Head is a balloon of sunshine-yellow tent fabric defining a constellation of perfectly rounded lumps, humps and appendages. The sculpture is constantly pumped full of air, pushing out to fill the front portion of the space. It swells, floor to ceiling, jutting gently toward window and walls. Its constituent forms are not truly organic, though; perfectly rounded, projectilelike elements look more like sex toys than real body parts—like butt plugs or smooth purple strap-ons designed for those who prefer their phalluses without molded veins and a head.

The pieces on the wall opposite this main attraction are actually digital prints produced, like the designs for all of Engelstein’s sculptural works, using CAD/CAM programs. In a lacy web of fine black lines, they imagine possibilities for the three-dimensional. These imaginings seem kin to the small sculptures roosting on simple shelves along the gallery walls. These solid pieces are also “printed” in plastic powder from a rapid prototype machine. A slightly crystalline finish on each beige form is reminiscent of sandstone, and as a result, some of them lean toward the craggy and landscapelike in visage. A series of pipelines—and, in one case, a chute-and-ladder set—run between the internal elements of the objects. Nonetheless, these sculptures resist an architectural feel. Cartoonish paws stick out at the base of one piece, and kitty ears adorn the top of another. The pipelines start to read as noses and ears; egg-shaped living pods suggest a set of balls. These pieces present us with bodies we can imagine traversing with our own, appealing to the senses in the same way as the yellow, bouncy-castle contours of Soft Head.

Smooth curves—the evening-out and cleaning-up of organic forms— suggest the removal of the body from the process of formal invention. As a result, Engelstein’s new work actually seems to be growing less and less overtly organic. Earlier projects that used taxidermy forms and the less landscapelike sculptures during her post-CAD phase are more obviously about an interest in the forms of fauna, but this new work is not a complete dismissal. Granted, it is hard to resist inflating the importance of the role of the computer in Engelstein’s practice. However, it is even more irresistible to read the organic back into the final product—to return the body to the very place of its removal.

Christina Linden worked with art and sundry forms of natural and artificial life (mostly natural) on three continents before she enrolled at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College last fall.

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