This Long Road (East Bay Express, September 29, 2009)

Triangulation: Three sculptors take aim at the human condition.
By DeWitt Cheng

Artistic collaborations have become increasingly common in recent years as the idea of art as the distilled, hard-won aesthetic honey of suffering worker-bee geniuses has been replaced by a cooler (and possibly more realistic) idea of art as research, or objectified philosophy. With performance and mixed media, teamwork and the division of labor make good sense, and nobody’s ontological survival is on the line any more, at least officially.

This Long Road brings together three ceramic sculptors — Ben Belknap, Crystal Morey, and Derek Weisberg — who met in art school and have worked independently with the figure since then. While their individual styles can be easily discerned in the larger, collaborative pieces, they work together, like musicians playing in harmony or counterpoint. Belknap’s caricatures of a variety of physical types contrast nicely with his colleagues’ trademark figures — prim, skeptical, fine-boned nudes by Morey, and hairless babies or old men, comically melancholic, by Weisberg. (Also on view are solo pieces by each artist, or by various duos.)

Art history meets contemporaneity in these works, some of which recall traditional European carved reliefs, altars and sarcophagi, though invaded, inexplicably, by less-then-exalted modern comic personages. Narrative explanations are up to the viewers, as the titles, e.g., “So Close Yet So Far,” “Forest Families VIII,” and “Into Days Yet Unknown XVIIII,” are suggestively ironic, with their Roman numerals implying obsessive repetition, without being definitive. The large installation that provides the show’s name features more than twenty small works that seem as random and odd as life: heads on stages/shelves or in niches; women with hands sprouting winglike from their shoulders, or extending tendril-like from their necks as fingered bodies. In two untitled works, Belknap juxtaposes surprised-appearing male and female heads that are contained within small roofed cabins; in a similar grouping, three portrait busts set on shelves beneath arched enclosures suggest opera boxes, baptismal fonts, and Renaissance paintings extruded into 3D; and his asbestos-suited oil-field worker stands impassively amid flames that looks suspiciously like jalapeno peppers, an icon of cool (or dumb). In “This Long Road II,” a ruminative Morey heroine stands between two gesticulating Weisberg schlemiels (the Yiddishism is irresistible) while two huge hands offer benedictions; in another, a female Morey Baptism is heralded by a morose angelic Weisberg choir.