Bruce Metcalf’s Life among Mummies, 1997 (photo: John Wilson White)

The Miniature Worlds of Bruce Metcalf

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

The Miniature Worlds of Bruce Metcalf at the Palo Alto Art Center is a challenging view of the artist’s curious mixture of jewelry, cartooning and small-scale sculpture. Metcalf is an artist with high credentials as a precise metal-smith and delicate woodcarver. He creates small scenarios in which his tragicomic everyman (who doubles as an oversize brooch) wrestles with existential moments in life. The exhibition work comes mostly from the nineties and is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by the artist, Dr. Vicky A. Clark and Curator, Signe Mayfield.

The best works in the show are a series that utilize a simple stage with a perfectly crafted architectural form on it that involves an arch, scenery painted at the back and a very few objects supporting each encounter of his figures. The stages on which we view the drama of these ironic confrontations, as in every theater, are every bit as integral to the play as the actor himself.

Metcalf’s figures are seemingly more developed in form as they proceed from their feet upward. The hands are often big inflated Micky Mouse glove shapes in contrast to feet that are simple hooks at the end of spindly little legs (if legs exist at all). The oversize head takes the shape of an upside down pear, often sporting two completely different and widely spaced eyes. In spite of the gesture of the lower body, most of Metcalf’s characters are experiencing emotions and events in the realm of the head. Peanut pock marks, swollen and wall-eyed bewilderment, lumps, bandages and a determined frown convey a hapless yet undeterred forward march in life, buffeted by many indignities but encountering a few epiphanies along the way.

Visionary by Bruce Metcalf, 1995, is 7″ high and employs silver, brass, wood, plexiglass, paint and much more.

Metcalf has something to say about the nature of art among his life lessons. In Visionary, Metcalf’s little painter is having a stare-down with the work on his easel. His inspirations, tacked to the wall in back, are nature and Renaissance art, but somehow what has appeared on his canvas is a big hairy R. Crumb comic book eye. In Carving an Other, the actor is deeply engrossed in carving, with a crude knife, an idealized but simplistic figure — suggesting a metaphor for our search for the perfect mate in the act of figure sculpture. (Indeed, both Broadway musicals and Greek legends explore this notion.)

Bruce Metcalf’s Carving an Other, 1994

The struggle between good and evil takes the stage in several of Metcalf’s sculptures. In “The Damaged Angel Comes to Ground” our hero has thrown off a whole lot of crutches that are seen on the ground (indicating figurative crutches as opposed to a sprained ankle) and at least temporarily enjoying the sensation of flight. Assuming he must ‘come to ground’ he discovers the crutches are still there should he choose to pick them up. Our imperfect angel gets a rude welcome to mortality in Advent of the Damaged Angel. Standing on shaky legs, he sports a completely bandaged head, and the leaves on his stick/branch arms are falling like molting feathers. His halo is still intact though, so he must reconcile a desire for purity with the brutality and unpredictability of life on earth.

Advent of a Damaged Angel by Bruce Metcalf, 1997

In “Illumination”, a simple lamp (of the type stereotypically used for interrogation or counting money in a gambling house) hangs above a sponge headed figure. Having absorbed what simple truths the situation offers him he slumps and resists descent from play-acting to the real world at the foot of the stairs in front of the stage.

Metcalf’s miniature worlds are very precious and perfect in many respects. Nevertheless, the exquisite craftsmanship and stylized figures must not be easily dismissed as simple jewelry or obsession with process. They are small events filled with opportunities to laugh, reflect and appreciate an artist’s inevitably autobiographical story. They are full of insight.

The show runs through December 21, 2008.

Comments are closed.