Emil Alzamora's beautifully crafted sculptures are like numerous cautionary anecdotes encapsulated in one human figure, however deformed. Some are contemporary in style and subject, while others feel quite ancient, an impression bolstered by Alzamora's uncanny aesthetic, a fusion of classical sculpture and Surrealism, with occasional shades of Minimalism and Expressionism. Whether life-size or miniature, each bust, body and hybrid organism has a striking presence and tangible mass. Most forms are creepily, intentionally lifeless, calling to mind ancient Greek sculptures, but also the imposing, enigmatic object-hood of a Robert Smithson installation. Other works still bare traces of the artist's hand, calling to mind the stretched-out bodies of Alberto Giacometti.
The central piece from Alzamora's exhibition Random Mutations That Work at Artbreak Gallery (through February 28) dramatizes the primordial chasm between body and mind. A head floats high above gallery-goers, connected to a slumped body on the floor by an elongated, twisted and knotted neck. Titled "Afterlife Afterthought lifesize(ish)" (below), it reminds of that pop culture convention whereby a ghostly soul floats away from a recently deceased body. It’s also a visual pun on "having one's head in the clouds," and maybe a commentary on contemporary body image issues, reflecting the idea of being fundamentally estranged from one's body. Aside from its thematic content, the gypsum sculpture is massive and somewhat monstrous, yet also visibly frail, with its melancholic head suspended perilously over its pale, corpse-like body. An air of heartfelt sadness and loss runs counter to the material spectacle of the piece.
This oscillation between the beautifully strange and strangely moving recurs in most of Alzamora's sculptures. The Peru-born, Florida-raised sculptor, now based in Beacon, New York, continually shifts scales and media, working with figures that are over ten feet tall, and others no more than ten inches tall, some made of bronze, graphite or aluminum, while others are ceramic or gypsum. The largest artworks in this exhibition, like the ghostly, ashen "Afterlife" and the nearby figure in matte black, with knees bent and its head thrown back towards the ceiling, are smoothed and polished objects. They're evidence of a well-developed and masterful artistic process, but suffer some from being so sleek and pristine. With traces of the artist's handiwork sanded down into glossy and pristine surfaces, I found myself weirdly alienated from some of the large-scale sculptures, as if they were imposing monuments rather than the expressions of an individual's ideas or insights. Alzamora manages to avoid this problem in many of the exhibition's smaller works through manipulations of proportion and material.
Several pairs of polished ceramic busts line the walls of the adjacent room, dubbed the "Mother & Child" series (pictured at top), they portray a parent and child whose faces are completely shrouded in various sorts of leaves and flowers. These make explicit the theme of vision (or lack thereof), which recurs through much of Alzamora's work, like the nearby "King", another bust in which a young boy's eyes are covered by a crown too large for his head. The "Mother & Child" sculptures, aside from their captivating formal beauty, offer many possible readings, from the emotional bond between mother and child, to the isolation and blindness that comes from hiding behind disguises. There's also a lush, almost Baroque beauty to their overwhelmingly ornate headgear that packs a great deal of visual pleasure, especially compared to the relatively spare, unadorned bodies that make up the rest of the exhibition.
Meanwhile, the smallest of Alzamora's recent works, with their rough-hewn textures and hand-sculpted surfaces, provide a welcome contrast to the highly processed and perfectly formed larger works. Two series of male nudes just a few inches tall float at eye-level on the gallery walls. The visible finger marks in these small, delicate forms suggest a frailty and organic materiality that some of the nearby sculptures, with their life-size scales and bizarre deformations, struggle to convey. Another small sculpture, this one installed above eye level, depicts a suited man peering cautiously over the end of a plank. Aptly title "Plank", signed and numbered editions of the work are available online as part of the artist's so called "Economic Stimulus Plan".
Here, Alzamora's trademark style of deadpan satire, often at the core of previous series and shows, makes a much-needed appearance. Whether a reference to corporate culture at the end of its rope, or the culture-wide sense of uncertainty and impending doom, it's a welcome moment of humor in a show that is otherwise gloomy if not downright depressive. Not that an entire exhibition should never be of a unified emotional timbre, but part of Alzamora's strength is his ability to shift his trademark style of sculpture to address different subjects, aesthetics and ideas. This latest series of works manages to surprise viewers on several occasions, even if certain works remain inaccessible. Ultimately, though, he draws us into his world of stretched limbs, shrunken bodies and heads shrouded in shrubbery.