------------------------------- "Hank Murta Adams," new work, through Feb. 27, at Elliott Brown Gallery, 619 N. 35th St., in Fremont. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays. -------------------------------
Hank Murta Adams must be a guy with a sense of humor. He also seems to have a soft spot for the off-kilter types who embrace the absurd, barely noticing that there's anything out of the ordinary.
Take the rogue's gallery of endearingly wacked-out characters in his current exhibition at Elliott Brown Gallery. Adams' medium is cast glass, and the dozen or so monumental busts in this show - all perched on pedestals like so many loony ancestors on display in the drawing room - are adventuresome combinations of wit and aggression, tenderness and tragedy.
Adams has been making his big heads for several years now. A painting graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he has in the past 20 years made a name for himself as a sculptor working in cast glass. He's frequently taught at the Pilchuck Glass School, though his work is anything but the delicate, decorative, candy-colored Venetian-style work more often associated with the Pilchuck aesthetic.
Instead, he makes heads that are two to three feet tall and as weighty as a tree stump. Adams likes a raw, rough-and-tumble approach to surface finishing, and he either sandblasts these heads or simply doesn't bother to clean them up after they come out of their molds. The heads end up opaque and gray, as though made with industrial cement instead of glass. Except that Adams loves to let little veins of glass seep onto the surface, a technique called "flashing," that can surprise the viewer into realizing that below the industrial-strength surface of these heads is a core of beautiful, jewel-like green or blue glass.
For eyes, Adams uses strips of coiled copper that his give heads the whirling, target eyes of zombies from 1950s horror flicks. He also uses thick copper wire to give some of them menacing Medusa hairdos that resemble herds of worms wriggling toward the sky. Given their blobby blunt features and dazed expressions, you feel a little sorry for this family of oddballs.
Many of these weirdly lovable, brutish Frankensteins do indeed have something to be alarmed about. Like the victims of a sorcerer with a mean streak, or the fall guys in medieval morality tales, their foibles and passions have literally disfigured them. Most have grotesque growths or a mechanical apparatus sprouting out of their craniums.
"Head with Tuner" is a man's head with what look like primitive radio towers clamped to his head like an Easter bonnet. "Radio Boy" is a head with a block growing out of it above the right ear, an antenna of some kind attached to the block. Given the way he's craning his neck, "Radio Boy" seems to be trying hard to get the signal. These and a couple of other sculptures seem to be commentaries on communication, though whether they are stressing the need for better communications between individuals or pointing out the folly of trying too hard is impossible to know.
"Nose Job" is more readily interpreted. The head has an obscenely elongated false nose strapped to the middle of its face. But if this is supposed to be cosmetically attractive, it comes with a price: a growth the size of a potato has sprouted on the head's neck. "Snork" is even darker. A dog's head (or is it a pig's?) has grown out of a guy's brain. To make the point clearer, a copper tube connects the creature's brain to the man's. If the guy is going to behave like a pig in Adams' surreal world of cause and effect, he will literally get the head of a pig grafted onto his own.
Despite the grotesqueries, you can't help but feel tender and more than a little moved about these sculptures. They have an Everyman-quality. Who hasn't wondered what it would take to better communicate with others? Who hasn't had such nasty thoughts that you wondered where they came from? (Maybe from some other creature that momentarily took over your brain.)
And as if to remind us not to take it all too seriously, Adams has included a 16-foot-long table chock-a-block with pieces of glass cake and pastries, all clamped fast with metal wire to little glass dessert dishes. The cakes, pastries and their dishes (about 150 of them altogether) have been piled onto the table like the rubble in a pastry shop after an earthquake. He calls the piece "Cake Heap" and he's selling it by the pound.