New York

Paloma Varga Weisz

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

Paloma Varga Weisz has a name almost too good to be true: Teutonic and Northern in one part, Latin and Southern in the others—the novels of Thomas Mann in one person. Fun with people’s names is just fun, of course, but Weisz’s work does have the schizoid tension this particular game implies. At first glance her sculpture looks somber and conjures the sacred, and the works shown here, in an exhibition titled “Chor ” (Choir)—her first US solo appearance—explicitly address the psychic space and physical furniture of the church: Weisz’s carved busts, and their limewood medium, recall the religious statuary of old Europe, and their arrangement along benches suggests both the ornamented pews of early houses of worship and the people who might once have sat there—women in cowls and butterfly headdresses, men in monk-like habits or lavish fur bonnets. Yet some of the figures develop a goofy quality. A torso may rise conventionally up to an Elizabethan ruff only to be topped by the head of a beagle; a man may make a hat out of a cloacal nest of sausages; a woman may have one head but three faces, each sharing at least one eye with its neighbor. While the mood of each figure stays grave and even pious, a vein of sensuous play runs unevenly through the group, leavening its austerity.

At heart, one senses (or perhaps hopes), Weisz is a rather simple artist, fascinated by and skilled in an old-fashioned genus of modeling whose sanctified content she adjusts through infusions of personal fantasy. Another, more ambitious side emerges in her installation strategies and larger-scale works. Fallende Frau, doppelköpfig (Falling woman, double-faced), 2004, is an apparently full-size female figure, which, however, is so elaborately swathed in artfully draped gray cloth that only its extremities are visible. Since almost any armature could lie under that wrapping, at least part of the work’s aura originates in a suspicion of discontinuity and fracture: It seems doubtful that an artist who had shaped a body as carefully as Weisz has shaped this figure’s head, hands, and feet would so hide her craft. The fabric, simultaneously extravagant in its rich folds and severe in its color, supplies another visual displacement, clashing with the simpler style of the carved elements as if time has leapt from the medieval to the Baroque. Meanwhile, the woman hangs in midair, upside down, and has two faces, on the front and back of her head. Given the Christian references elsewhere in the show, one thinks of Lucifer, the falling angel; but the point is not so much to identify the figure as to register the levels of artifice and rupture that disturb its solemn strangeness.

Weisz sets up a similar disjunction—a collision between different kinds of purity—when she places her limewood busts on entirely contemporary planar benches in a monochrome-gray synthetic. But this installation only points up how much more absorbing the sculptures themselves are than the elaborate schemes she devises for them, schemes that tend to read as attempts to update or make relevant a rather traditional art. The peculiar identity Weisz gives her sober yet fantastical characters, and her handling of the soft density of limewood, its weight and tender surface, are enough.

David Frankel