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LA CIENEGA AREA

Elaine Carhartt’s ceramic figures seem to sprout from some unknown sphere in which circus performers and mythical creatures live together in silent contentment. A strange stillness pervades the gallery they presently occupy; even three little “Music Makers” play a clay drum, flute and harp without a sound. The quietude comes from the formality of these apparently playful folk, ranging from about two feet tall to nearly life size.

Fashioned of engobe on fired clay, the figures wear patterned leotards, pointed-toed shoes, unwieldy headdresses and other fanciful forms of carnival dress. But instead of vaulting off a trampoline or standing on one hand, these roundly modeled personages assume stiff, symmetrical, earth-bound positions as if frozen in action. This peculiar merger of whimsy and sobriety is what gives Carhartt’s sculpture its effect. Just as you are about to dismiss her work as being too cute, you are flummoxed by an unctuous smile or a vacant gaze on the round human faces that appear on figures and animals alike.

Carhartt’s work has always had more going for it than charm. New pieces seem to have acquired an increasingly unsettling twist, along with the earthy color of engobe. What are we to make of a pig, a duck, a penguin and, yes, a worm that stare up at us through human eyes? Like those of the larger figures, their faces are masks, finally as inscrutable as a sphinx. (Asher/Faure, 612 N. Almont Drive, to Dec. 28.)


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