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Third Eye Open 

Unique show requires meditative mode

Spare, muted and stripped bare, the 37 steel objects now showing at the Hodges Taylor Gallery represent one man's curious and cranky curatorial mindset and will surely produce a galley of knitted brows. Churlish guest curator Rob Williams likes to make life difficult for us all. He wants us to learn and grow, damn it. Let's humor him. Everything in Williams' show, Metal: Concrete/Glass/Diamonds, is part metal: bronze, steel, copper, brass or iron. Everything here started out cold and hard and none remains wholly that. Here, the metals have gently morphed to objects spare, understated and visually and intellectually playful — or some combination of that. None of these works begs for attention or blasts off the wall. No piece here demands reaction; each suggests a measured response, and each piece invites reflection. With these works, the entire gallery becomes a meditation retreat until the show closes at the end of this month. Take a deep breath, assume the lotus position, and keep all your eyes open, especially that third one.

"Shift," by Susanna B. Speirs, is 25 small glass antlers sprouting from brass thimbles mounted on the wall. The pieces are aligned in a grid pattern — five rows of five lines. Speirs "strives to create metaphors through the use of anthropomorphic connotations and mechanical parts juxtaposed with natural forms." That's Artspeak for mixing animal and vegetable with manmade mineral to create the formerly inconceivable. It works. The 25 two-pronged frosted glass antlers are tree branch forks rising from a tiny machined cylinder. Organic tentacles rising from steel test tubes — life rising from the laboratory. And that's, like, a metaphor.

It's also a piece which happens to mindlessly delight with a sensation similar to floating face down and wide eyed over an undulant coral reef. One could become pleasantly lost here.

In another Speirs piece, three wall-mounted armatures with pulley ends project overhead and each suspends a single steel cable with a cast glass pear dangling from the end of the line. Each fruit is equally spaced from the next; each hangs four feet from the gallery carpet. The sturdy steel armature and steel cable appear over engineered for the task of fruit suspension. I haven't a clue what the artist is trying to tell me with this piece titled "A Head by an Inch." Is the title metaphor? Double entendre? Misspelling? I don't get it and Prof Williams smacks me for being thick. I'm lost — and uncomfortably this time. I swivel my lotus position and look to the left.

Five objects sit aloft along a belly-level horizontal shelf on the back wall. Each is made of painted brass by artist Hongsock Lee. Each is roughly the size of a bookend and is a comical or discordant shape. They are unlikely, understated and playful. They beg a touch but I remain mindful and contain my hands.

Levitate left and proceed to the vertical wall boats by Jack and Alice McLean. These pieces get Best of Show for their ability to drop my sudden standard gallery anxiety level to a manageable low. The welded and painted bronze objects resemble long "crew" vessels as viewed from a bridge above the river. The only opening in each javelin shape is in the hollowed center of the hull which is inset with three conical beads. The beads resemble those flattened cone Vietnamese peasant hats. The boats are mounted vertically to the wall and they appear to be both floating on and stuck to the wall.

"Black Wall Boat" glides five feet up the gallery wall. It is the shape of split skin, as flat as an open wound on the wall. Three beaded heads are tucked in the center opening. These pieces are the least minimal of the show, the most primitive and representational, and my favorites. They're stark and elegant and understated. The boats are as tangible and concrete as cast bronze and simultaneously as abstract as the "idea" of a boat. My third eye is beginning to focus.

For such an alternately thought-provoking and meditative show, there are objects on this wall which could easily double as weapons. "Vertical Abstract" by Marc Maiorana is two six-foot lacy vertical lines of steel welded to the business end of a guillotine — figuratively speaking. With most abstract art, our eyes initially beg to see something representational. Once the guillotine association fades (a stretch anyway), two flat steel plates with thin steel tentacles remain. Only the steel form, molded into minimal silhouette, emerges. Look long enough and the flat pieces merge into the wall to become negative space, opening voids in the gallery wall. Can meditation spawn hallucinations?

Metal: Concrete/Glass/Diamonds, Rob Williams' ode to the alchemic possibilities of metal, ends with "X,Y,Z" by Rich Smith. Smith uses forge fabricated steel and concrete to create a happy union of oft-married materials. "X,Y,Z" is a shallow steel tray filled with concrete. The concrete is fine aggregate and smooth to the touch, with tiny air pockets spread over the surface. A four-sided, tapered tower sits atop the concrete tray and is based and capped with steel with a central torso of molded and finished concrete. These materials — steel and concrete — are typically thought of as rough structural elements used in bridges and buildings. We see them in their hubristic skeletal forms all over Charlotte. Smith retrains the structural beasts of burden, and evokes the surprise elicited when wood feigns steel, or clay is made to resemble wood. But this is what it is — steel and concrete.

My meditation theme continues in two dimensions in the front room at Hodges Taylor Gallery with oil paintings by Wayne McDowell. His works are a group titled A Fixed Gaze. Perfect. These are oil paintings of repeated similar, or identical, objects: a single steel cabinet, a shelf, and bowls and bottles on countertops. They are excellent abstract paintings masquerading as still lifes. The objects all appear in the bottom quarter of the canvas. Spare, empty, vacant — these still lifes will either disappear into the wall or draw you in for a long stare.

A few very good painters can do this — transform the profoundly prosaic into the prosaically profound. Everyday objects become engrossing. The handling of light and form with paint fools us into thinking these quotidian objects are weightier, somehow transformed, their essence revealed. Mundane objects magically become mesmerizing. Trust me, it's only the artist's transformative vision, and it's a gift to us from a gifted painter.

Take a deep breath, put your feet back on the ground and get back to work. Meditation time is over.

The exhibits Metal: Concrete/Glass/Diamonds and A Fixed Gaze are on display through the end of April at Hodges Taylor Gallery, 401 N. Tryon Street. For details, call 704-334-3799.

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