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Art review: Patrick Nickell at Rosamund Felsen Gallery

February 17, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Patrick Nickell install Ten recent sculptures by Patrick Nickell include some of the best the artist has made. Since his 2003 survey at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Gallery, he's continued to mine modest, handmade territory that's light-years away from the over-produced fabrications often encountered these days. The result is a seductive mix of intelligence and charm.

The absent-minded form of drawing called a doodle has long been an inspiration for Nickell's work -- a way to empty out rational or preconceived logic and let in an element of serendipity and play. In the sculptures at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, overtones of discovery, sudden insight and unexpected knowledge wrestle with familiar form.

The sculptures are made from simple tables of painted wood that hold aloft an irregular interlace of  painted plaster over a metal armature. Like Brancusi, Nickell pays close attention to both the sculptural object, conventionally considered, and its pedestal or base. Like Picasso, Julio Gonzalez or David Smith, he makes a linear drawing-in-space that occupies three dimensions.

Like Lynda Benglis, he endows a pure abstraction with the subtle presence of a human body -- in this case, the roughly thigh-high tables functioning as sturdy legs, the organic squiggles of animated color above slyly juxtaposed with a viewer's torso. And, like Kenneth Price, he employs bright, irrational color to effortlessly smudge presumed distinctions between art and craft.

Patrick Nickell Seeker The relationship between each sculptural doodle and its supporting table is critical. Nickell's tables are nearly as plainspoken as anything produced in a tradition-minded Shaker workshop -- sobriety given form. The doodles, by contrast, are eccentricity made tangible. Mostly the overall shape stays within the rectangular column of space defined by the tabletop; but, here and there, a line busts out and then careens back in, as if in a  cartoon-style effort to escape. Their swooping, tangled lines intersect vertical lift with horizontal spread.

Speaking of cartoons, color is employed to visually unify or divide the functional, rectilinear lines of one and the playful curiousness of the other. In a crazy way, the obvious condition of the doodle as a gonzo spatial rendering seeps into the seemingly sober furniture below, transforming it too into a drawing in space. Soon, everything else one encounters on leaving the gallery starts to look like a drawing too.

When an ordinary table assumes the odd character of a thoroughly bizarre construction, rather than a conventional bit of household furniture, the sculpture is performing in high gear. Nickell has titled the show "The Lending Library Lends a Hand." Its inventory of accumulated sculptural knowledge is smartly put to the service of imaginative release.

-- Christopher Knight

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through March 12. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Photos: Patrick Nickell, "The Lending Library Lends a Hand," installation view; "Seeker" (detail), 2010; Credit: Rosamund Felsen Gallery