New York

Keith Edmier

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

From Farrah Fawcett to molten lava, sub-Freudian jokes about the progress of Keith Edmier’s fascinations come too easily to be funny. Still, the fact remains that his best-known work, from 2000–2002, is a marble nude of the actress and ’70s poster girl, and that the centerpiece of his recent show developed out of a three-year try at casting in molten rock. He actually went to Hawaii to study the stuff in its natural state, then figured out a process to produce and work it in a foundry. You wonder about the technology, not to mention the expense, involved in this artistic first, for a first I imagine it must be: sculpture cast, not carved, in stone. It is some kind of peculiar feat, but don’t let the Dubious Achievements people hear about it.

Art this elaborate in its means can alienate viewers, but Edmier’s is not a case of simple bloat. Many artists have redeemed excess by wallowing in it, and the extravagance of Edmier’s choice of medium comes with an equally florid taste in themes and ideas that was already clear in the Fawcett piece, with its pithy fusion of popular culture, sexual reverie, and a Renaissance manner gone kitsch. In the new work, the objects Edmier has cast are hefty cycads, dioecious tropical plants—in other words, each plant is gender specific, either male or female. Such plants are not uncommon (hollies, for example, are dioecious), but Edmier’s swollen cycad spouses are special in the blatancy of their sexuality, the male with a fat, upright proboscis sprouting from its six-foot stalk and the female with a bulbous, cauliflowerish orb ringed by strawberry-like fruit. Upping the ante, Edmier introduces color in the male plant by dusting the surface of its most phallic section with sickly yellow pollen. Imagine him doing this, inch by inch, and the point will grow on you.

The overload in material, form, and associative content here reminds me of an artist like Dale Chihuly, a minority taste in the art world whose work, however, I often enjoy just because it is too much. But where Chihuly’s glass is all transparency, lightness, color, and frill, Edmier’s stone is black and leaden. Molten rock must be hard to manipulate, and seriously heavy: Edmier apparently hasn’t figured out either how to get it far off the ground or to invest it with fine detail. As a result, only the low-lying puddled bases of the sculptures turn out to be basalt—the cycads’ vertical shafts and filigreed leaves are polyurethane. Given his choice, too, Edmier seems to aspire to Chihuly-like delicacy and also to a masculine erectness. Leaving stone behind in two smaller pieces, he chooses tall, slender, intricately realized shapes, a wand of coral (again in polyurethane) supporting a seahorse (a pregnant male, natch), and a pair of six-foot-high fireweed plants, which pick up the lava premise in their name and their coating of volcanic ash. These works, less elaborate than the larger ones, are also more satisfying—especially since cast basalt turns out to have the odd quality of looking artificial, almost like polyurethane itself. Was it worth the trouble? Edmier’s technical and conceptual ambitions in using it seem to struggle against his sculptural desires.

David Frankel