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Art review: Ann Preston at Rosamund Felsen Gallery

February 19, 2010 |  6:00 am

400.Ann_Preston Sculptor Ann Preston has a wonderful habit of pushing a thesis so hard that at some indefinable point it tips over into its antithesis, leaving a viewer gasping at the charmed madness of it all. You wonder: How did we get from there to here?

Once it was Expressionist heads, the emotional rawness of their facial features soon seeming to be a clever cover for hidden states of authentic being. Her new abstract sculptural relief at Rosamund Felsen Gallery – Preston's first solo in more than a decade – does it with the precision of mathematical logic. In no time, sharp systemic principles seem to be the textbook definition of utter irrationality.

The stainless steel relief, nearly 9 feet high and more than 14 feet wide, spans a gallery corner. The relief feels less like an object or a surface than the intimation of an enveloping environment.

Its internal shapes derive from the location. The tetrahedrons describe the four faces of the mostly hidden spatial pyramid created by the room's two walls and floor, plus the sculpture. Preston has applied a waxed, tobacco-brown patina on some of the sculpture's planes, while others maintain their silvery hue. Deep shadows and bright highlights emphasize the irregularly faceted surface.

Visually the form opens and closes in syncopated rhythms, a pattern that a gallery handout says is determined by the golden ratio. For centuries artists have used that mathematical equation: The ratio of the larger side to the smaller one equals the ratio of the sum of both sides to the larger side.

High up in the relief, 10 of those surfaces bend, warp and ripple, billowing into unexpectedly organic shapes. They suggest sensuous body parts – breasts, buttocks, thighs, labia – that contradict the relief's otherwise aggressive, even vaguely hostile forms. Sculptural dualities start to multiply: hard/soft, machine/body, masculine/feminine, science/poetry.

The show also includes six acrylic paintings on shaped panels, three watercolors and five small sculptures, plus two photographs (by Grant Mudford) of a related monumental relief Preston made for a performing arts center in Utah. These supporting works unfold the underlying logic.

A series of interlocking pyramids painted in pale, pastel acrylics on a triangular panel creates the complex illusion of intersecting square tunnels. An octagonal panel incorporates curved lines that connect the corners of triangles within the composition, establishing a surprising organic web inside a rigorously rectilinear structure. Four distended steel tetrahedrons on nearby pedestals begin the extrapolation into three dimensions.

Preston's paintings and sculptures are absorbing puzzles with no solutions. The wonder of the puzzlement emerges as its own reward.

– Christopher Knight

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through March 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Image: Untitled. 2009-10. Photo Credit: Grant Mudford.