The Alex Bult Gallery departs from its schedule of one-person shows by regional artists this month with an exciting exhibit of sculptures from the collections of Wayne and Betty Jean Thiebaud, the Matt and Maria Bult family, and the Thiebaud Foundation.
It gives us a look at collections that have grown slowly and organically over the years, acquired by artists who have a knack for finding unusual pieces.
Some of the artists included are well known – Mark Di Suvero, Manuel Neri, William Wiley, Nathan Oliveira, John Chamberlain and Frederic Remington – while others are less familiar but no less accomplished – Robert Mallary, Tony Berlant, Robert Kulicke, Robert Braczyk, Tio Giambruni and Norman Wayne Taylor. There are also traditional tribal works from the Dogon people of Mali, the Mende people of Sierra Leone, the Pima and Papago peoples of the Mohave Desert in central and southern Arizona, and a small bronze Buddha head from Thailand.
The show begins with one of Neri’s signature plaster figures, a beautifully articulated, archetypal female nude. The essence of woman, it is tinged with dry pigment at the feet, knee and shoulders, an ashy substance that suggests the figure has sprung from some numinous fire.
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Next to it is one of the strongest works in the show, a resin-soaked-cardboard-over-steel wall piece titled “Falstaff,” by Mallary. It’s a vigorous Cubist figure, as much a painting as a sculpture, that suggests the heft and humor of the Shakespearean character in rich, warm tones and textures. Mallary also is represented by an ethereal block of layers of resin with rectangular inclusions that has the feel of a late Kandinsky.
Next to it is a pop sculpture from the 1960s by Taylor. It’s a funky, funny yet somehow menacing red, white and blue, ceramic American eagle. The show takes an ethnographic turn next with a bold mask, perhaps Oceanic, and a Dogon Kanaga mask, of the type worn by tribesmen in Mali for rituals ferrying the dead to the spirit realm of ancestors.
The Dogon is a striking mask with a triangular face topped by a crude cross with two arms, the top one symbolizing the heavens and the bottom one the earth. It is imbued with spiritual power and looks as though it would have been used in a ceremony. There’s a fascinating video on You Tube that shows how the masks are used in a sacred dance.
There are also two Mende Helmet masks from Sierra Leone. These masks are worn by women and symbolize the Mende’s ideal of feminine beauty. The elaborate hairdos, broad foreheads, small and elegant facial features and wide necks with rolls of flesh are prized by the Mende and represent the qualities of a fine Mende woman, wisdom, humility and fecundity.
Returning to contemporary American art, the show includes an attenuated walking figure by Braczyk, who in addition to being a serious sculptor is a kinetic toy-maker and novelist. His figure has an existential angst reminiscent of Alberto Giacometti’s figures. Next to it is a small stainless steel sculpture by Di Suvero that is probably a maquette for one of his monumental pieces. The abstract arrangement of sharp and curving forms is vigorously conceived and executed.
A series of small works include a Picasso-esque bird by Wayne Thiebaud, a tiny lunette-shaped female figure by Oliveira, and a bronze pear by Kulicke, who is best known as the inventor of the Kulicke frame as well as being a marvelous painter of small still lifes. Maria Bult is represented by a vigorously executed, Neri-like bust of a woman with her arms over her head.
A finely woven Pima basket and a Papago ceramic effigy vessel are interspersed with contemporary pieces such as Wiley’s humorous penis sculpture made of masking tape and wire and a small tin house by Berlant fashioned from scrap tin imprinted with images of flowers and fruits and punctuated by numerous nail heads.
In the midst of these is “The Scalp,” a late 19th-century sculpture of a deathlike Indian figure on a horse by Remington, who is renowned for his Western bronzes. It’s refinement contrasts with Chamberlain’s “Flower,” an abstract floor piece made of crushed automobile parts and the surreal reticulations of “Elephant Graveyard,” a beautifully patinated bronze by Giambruni, who taught for many years at UC Davis, as did Thiebaud, Wiley and Neri.
All in all, it’s a rare chance to see the kinds of things that artists collect, and it makes a pleasant break in the summer doldrums.