A dozen new table-top sculptures by Patrick Nickell represent a significant evolution, which the artist also signals by titling his beguiling exhibition "Letting Go." Serendipity has always been a prominent feature of his meandering abstractions, but now it has brought him to an implied — and sometimes even frank — figuration.
Nickell's last show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery two years ago, which featured some of the mid-career artist's finest work, featured looping interlaces of painted plaster over a metal armature, painted and set on top of simple, homemade white tables that function as homey pedestals. Three-dimensional drawings in actual space, they built on a do-it-yourself aesthetic long prominent in the work of Nickell and several other artists that first came to notice in the 1990s.
An outright emphasis on the workings of the hand in concert with the eye and mind stood in stark contrast to the growing sculptural strategy of outsourced fabrication and machine manufacture. There was nothing polemical about Nickell's work, no implied judgment of a larger, high-profile (and big-ticket) trend. Instead, the work made an eloquent case for the viable legitimacy of an alternative.
So do the works in "Letting Go," which add a direct figurative element to what had only been only implied before. "Bittersweet Memories" connects a figure doing a handstand to an outsize boxing glove. "For Another Day" sprawls across its table as if it had just fallen or been knocked down and is now determined to stand up. "Best of Both Worlds," painted all fleshy pinks, twists and turns around itself, all tied up in knots.
None of the figurative elements are refined or overly specific, but the clear suggestions of torsos, limbs, noggins, entrails and sometimes even animals are inescapable. Often they are attached to forms where the plaster is peeled away from the wire armature underneath, as if the sculpture were a chrysalis giving birth. Burlap occasionally wraps a blunt end, like a bandaged wound.
Struggle and fight — the bulbous, cartoon-style boxing glove is a recurrent theme — interacts with playful exuberance. Color, painted on in smooth acrylic, ranges from clear primaries to muddy mixtures. The result is sculpture of visually kinetic verve.
The exception to the tabletop rule comes in a work suspended by a heavy chain attached to a bolt driven into the wall. A linear, Medusa-like tangle protrudes a few feet into the room, ending in a half-dozen flapping tongues painted the color of raw meat. Titled "Public Life," it's the show's one plain concession to topical commentary — and it works.