Sculptures Hint Of Serenity, Religion

------------------------------- Art review

"Mark Calderon: Sculpture in Metal, Cement and Cast Glass," at Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave. S., Seattle, through Oct. 2. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. -------------------------------

The Greg Kucera Gallery this month seems to be filled with ancient religious statuary, except that it's difficult to say exactly what religion the serene, beautifully balanced sculptures describe.

A pair of nearly 2-feet-tall oval sculptures with perfectly ribbed surfaces resemble heads, perhaps heads from larger-than-life-size Buddha statues. Both "heads" are topped with bushy tufts that resemble the top-knot hairdos worn in some ancient Southeast Asian cultures. Wall mounts at about eye level further the suggestion that these are heads, despite their lack of facial features.

On an adjacent wall another oval sculpture, this one somewhat smaller at about a foot long, might also resemble a head, except for its tapered lower end, which suggests a human heart. Two rings of spikes twist around the "heart" like barbed wire. The reference to the idea of Catholicism's "sacred heart" and the crown of thorns worn by the crucified Jesus Christ is hard to miss.

Mark Calderon, the Seattle artist who made the 16 sculptures, has long been interested in the visual language of religions. Though not religious himself, he draws inspiration from the imagery of Buddhism and Christianity, which he mixes with the shapes and forms of the natural world. The "topknot" sculptures in his current show hint at Buddha heads from an ancient Cambodian temple, but there's also something botanical about the way the topknot is gathered into a tight bud, like a sprout bursting from a seed.

Like most of the works in the show, the "topknot" sculpture is beautifully crafted, a smooth, apparently weighty piece with a subtle, dusky, weathered-looking patina. Though it could be chiseled out of rock or made of bronze, it is cast of acrylic-modified cement. One of Calderon's great skills is to make cement look like precious material.

"Religions are definitely an influence in my work," said Calderon, 44. "I'm fascinated by belief systems and the visual images that go with them. With the Buddha head, for instance, you can take away the body and it still embodies a lot of meaning, it still carries a lot of spiritual associations."

For more than a decade, Calderon has been one of the region's most singular and admired sculptors. He works primarily in cast cement, cast and fabricated bronze, and, to a lesser extent, in cast glass, though in the past he has also made prints. As an art major at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., in the late '70s, Calderon specialized in printmaking.

"But what started to get to me was the process involved in printmaking," Calderon said. "There wasn't enough spontaneity. So I started doing collage, assemblage, I made paper and boxes and started using things like dried fish, flies on insect pins, thorny stems. I'd assemble them into wall-mounted pieces that were very three-dimensional. I was obviously moving toward free-standing sculpture, though it took me a while before I thought I could do successful floor pieces."

These days he often creates free-standing sculptures, and ironically, since he casts much of his work, Calderon is back to creating art through a very specific process. (Casting requires a fairly painstaking procedure of making molds, then pouring the bronze or cement or glass, then carefully controlling the cooling and polishing. Spontaneity is not part of the formula.) Though many of the pieces in this show are meant to be mounted on walls, one of the best works is "Floribunda," a rotund, cast bronze piece that sits on the floor like a huge pumpkin. Its surface is covered with perfectly symmetrical grooves like the shells of certain ocean crustaceans or some gourds. But, like a number of other pieces in this show, "Floribunda" has a neat "topknot" that seems to refer to a head.

Another impressive piece is "Pluma," a 7-foot-tall by 10-foot-wide cast and fabricated bronze sculpture commissioned for the outside of the Burke Museum by a group of Burke supporters. (It will be installed there in October.) Because of the Burke's role as a museum of natural and anthropological history, Calderon said he wanted to make a sculpture that would refer to the natural world. As its name suggests, "Pluma," with its three, huge, leaf-like arms spreading wide, might be part of a plant that resembles a fan, or a bird with pluming tail feathers.

Like most of Calderon's work, part of the appeal of "Floribunda" and "Pluma" is that while the sculptures offer specific visual clues suggesting subject matter, they are nevertheless ambiguous and, in the end, abstract. Other pieces in the show seem to refer to Southeast Asian temples or statuary, but also to beehives, seed pods and shafts of wheat. Though less in this show than in the past, Calderon's sculpture also has often contained obvious sexual references, abstract but nevertheless hard to miss.

A native of Bakersfield, Calif., Calderon wanted to leave California after college. Because one of his grandmothers had lived in Washington state, he visited Seattle. He liked the city and moved here in the early 1980s. Calderon's art soon attracted attention, and he started winning awards.

In 1986 he won the Seattle Art Museum's Betty Bowen Memorial Award, one of the most prestigious regional art awards. Calderon has been represented in Seattle by the Greg Kucera Gallery since 1985.

Though known as a sculptor, in 1994 Calderon made a remarkable series of prints based on Catholic saints. He said at the time the prints, which he created by literally burning brands onto paper, were inspired by Mexican retablos, the tin religious icons popular in Mexico. Called the "Santos," or "Saints," series, the prints still are the most specifically religion-related work that Calderon has done. Some viewers at the time assumed the "Santos" referred to Calderon's own heritage: his roots are Norwegian on this mother's side and Mexican on his father's.

But Calderon says if anything, "I guess I was raised Protestant. I probably went to church about six times as a kid, with my mother. I get my ideas by traveling, I've been to Mexico a lot, and by looking at images in books. I like to have associations, connotations, relationships in my work. I like it when things mix together without being too specific."