San Francisco

David Best

Gallery Paule Anglim

David Best’s sculptures are figurative plaster armatures immersed in animal carcasses, cloth and ceramic decoration. Through these materials the artist expresses aspects of both life and death, combining cultural artifacts and natural elements into a personalized cult object. In a multitude of agonizing details his figures remind one of Bosch’s poor souls or the demonic renderings on a Gothic cathedral facade. Best uses an eclectic array of forms; suggestions of Japanese, American Indian and Christian motifs abound. The modern psyche is overwhelmed, bombarded with cultural references that resist specific iconographic dissection. His sculptures, although fetish-inspired, seem more theatrical than fetishistic in the truest sense of the word—an embodiment of magical power.

The large sculptures, standing approximately a yard high, are covered with shrouds, feathers, ceramic religious symbols and dead animals (both real and modeled), so that the only parts of the plaster armature that remain visible are the face and legs. Small faces, often with eyes closed and mouths set in a grimace, appear contorted in pain. The artist sometimes leaves the rear of the cast exposed, carving into one figure to suggest partially dismembered vertebrae. The figures are posited on small platforms with tree stumps, a stuffed raccoon or other objects that suggest a natural history museum type display. One figurative work, The Starling Making Her Nest, becomes a medieval tableau on which mask forms, frogs and birds are enveloped by a red velvet shroud.

Last year Best exhibited the “Cancer” series, sculptures displaying the effects of the disease through several mutilations of a warrior figure. The “Snake Charmer” series, from which this show originated, draws on the universal symbolism attached to the snake and its implication in male/female relationships. Regardless, the aura of death and disease still permeates. While a new thematic consideration offers more subject matter, it does not seem to move the artist away from his obsession with the macabre. The major distinction between the “Snake Charmer” series and the earlier work is simply increased scale and a greater dependence on found objects.

In addition to his standing sculptures, Best shows a selection of stoneware urns imposed with Oriental faces and objects rendered in porcelain relief. The jars involve a delicate layering of forms in which embossed planes of clay are built out partially to reveal several subcutaneous layers. In their lack of found objects, the jars seem less eccentric and also display more of the artist’s ceramic abilities.

Best’s pieces are deliberate and entertaining investigations into excess. To this viewer his works do not appear as objects of veneration or vestiges of spiritual experiences, so much as fantastic composites in which the mystical residue of many cultures can be found.

Hal Fischer