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Icons of Reality

Heavyweight Pun: Kenneth Hepburn's "For Better or Worse" is a wry marriage of form and potential energy.

Lucy Gaylord's ponderous rapture; Kenneth Hepburn's gravity games

By Ann Elliott Sherman

UP FRONT, I confess that no matter how well it's done, I am bone tired of the apparently ubiquitous urge to sanctify one's artwork by painting exquisitely detailed little icons encrusted with gold leaf. Galleries as temples of art, art as spiritual allegory, shrines to the artist's technical abilities--whatever genuflection is intended, it feels like being asked to recite catechism under threat of a few smacks with a wooden ruler.

So I was a mite disappointed that the usually idiosyncratic painter Lucy Gaylord, whose works are now on display at d.p. Fong Galleries in San Jose, evidenced this trend to play on gilt. In Lips, Ears, Eyes and False Teeth, the listed items are not only painted on a gold background but arranged in the form of a cross around an image of open, presumably no-longer-sharp scissors.

Quite a few of us ain't what we used to be (especially the owner of those blue lips), but it is unclear whether Gaylord is spoofing the baby-boomer religion of wresting supposedly new meaning out of every phase of life they reach in record numbers or preaching her own gospel of aging.

A recurrent motif is the profile of a woman with titian hair wrapped round her head, borrowed from a Renaissance painting. Whether nearly cropped out of the picture or painted in milky-blue skin tones that have been sanded until she almost disappears into a shifting sea of gazing eyes, she seems like a proxy for the artist. Perhaps what her Dissolving and another figure's Fading into leafy darkness signify is shared, inevitable obscurity, despite efforts toward immortality through art or other means.

If all this seems unduly ponderous, by all means, skip to the dessert--the rapturous baptism by sunset's fire titled Swimmers. If the ripple connecting the two otherwise isolated bathers doesn't suck you in, the intense emerald hills mirrored in blue-violet water washed in flaming coral light will. No wonder these women--carefully keeping their capped heads out of the water, poised on a slight diagonal like the blue and red points of a compass too excited to find north--can't look at each other, much less at us. Any further spark of connection would combust the whole thing.

THOSE WHO know Kenneth Hepburn from his trio of slender sculptures on Willow Glen's Lincoln Avenue might be surprised by the massive scale and humor of several of his works also on view at d.p. Fong.

At rest, a monumental chunk of limestone shaped like an alligator's head provides an interesting contrast in color and texture with its sleek black steel supports, but once its anchoring pin is released, 2,980 lbs. of Hot Swinging Actual Reality more than lives up to its name.

Revolving with a silent, smooth grace made possible by ball bearings from a Rolls Royce aircraft, the piece initially calls to mind those grasshopper oil pumps that once dotted the Central Valley. But poised on the vertical as shifting momentum reverses the direction of the stone's swing, the sculpture might be more accurately compared to a gymnast in super slo-mo. Hypnotic fun with a subliminal dash of danger makes this kinetic sculpture hard to ignore.

Irony (pardon the pun) and delicate balance also enliven another heavyweight piece. Angled on its edge, a thick rectangular plate punched with a circular hole is precariously coupled with a big balloon-tire of equally rusty metal. The Jack Sprat marriage of form and potential energy becomes a wry commentary by virtue of its title, For Better or Worse.

Hepburn clearly enjoys flirting with gravity. For another gigantic piece, the sculptor split a weathered wood beam into a "Y" two stories tall, then wedged a naturally pointed granite boulder between its branches. The only reinforcement keeping this unfussily elegant work from becoming a Wile E. Coyote cartoon punch line is a squared collar of polished steel--and the sizable bolts anchoring it to the floor.

The best of his smaller pieces similarly employ implicit movement or threat of force--resting on legs tapered to stiletto points, enclosing a ball inside a tight box with a ceiling of spikes or freezing a vertical ribbon of steel midripple. Without this visceral edge of caged energy, even the juxtaposition of rigid geometry and biomorphic irregularity in pieces such as Analog Desires or the untitled quartet of rocks in a steel box can't save Hepburn's work from looking like something commissioned for a corporate business park.

When Hepburn subverts the usual criticism of sculpture--that it just sits there--by toying with the possibility that at any moment it might not, he not only deflates the pomposity of his monumental works but also captures the vulnerability of all man's attempts to shape nature for his own pleasure and purpose. Such pieces are audacious and humble at the same time.

Lucy Gaylord and Kenneth Hepburn show through May 25 at d.p. Fong Galleries, 383 S. First St., San Jose. (408/298-8877)

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro

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