GLASS SCULPTOR Graham Caldwell has found a way to turn his medium's limitation -- i.e., the susceptibility of molten silica to the force of gravity -- into a unique strength. Suspended on handmade metal armatures that suggest both the gruesome threat of meat hooks and the grace of Calder's mobiles, his sagging, globular assemblages on view at Addison/Ripley Fine Art articulate a surprising range of emotional states.
Not least among these is the potential discomfort that comes from a heightened awareness of our physical bodies. Certainly, many of Caldwell's pieces suggest a kind of generic biomorphism. In other words, they can be read as any number of organic and/or nature-based forms: aquatic drift seeds, worms, tubers, milkweed pods, raindrops. Yet there are also several direct and indirect allusions to human anatomy and biological processes, some of which flirt with making us queasy. While "Cochlea I" and "Cochlea II," for instance, refer to the workings of the inner ear and both "Tears" and "Elizabeth's Tears" suggest emotion-triggered waterworks, still other pieces evoke damp hair, the blood stream and intestines.
Far from simple nature worship, however, Caldwell's sculptures reside in a world that is part clinical, part savage. His art bespeaks the abattoir as much as the grape arbor, Dr. Frankenstein's lab as much as the greenhouse. It is no accident that two of Caldwell's works on exhibit contain the word "Mechanism" in the title. The curiosity of the scientist -- suggested by Caldwell's cool steel frames and support structures -- tempers the warm appreciation of the poet.
To some degree, that's because glass, for all its ability to mimic the sacs and pouches of living organisms, has an impassive sheen to it. Yes, it can -- and often does -- call to mind the slippery, wet surfaces of things that pulse and throb, but it also evokes the formaldehyde-filled vials and beakers in which our vitals sometimes end up.
Ironically, the two sculptures of Caldwell's that refer directly to crying are perhaps his least emotional. Mounted on metal racks like specimens, as it were, these icy teardrops are about as real -- or, I should say, surreal -- as the glass droplets on the face of the model in Man Ray's famous 1930s photograph "Larmes (Tears)."
Like the weeping of the proverbial crocodile, they are false, these frighteningly beautiful simulacra of passion. Yet, like all of Caldwell's glass art, they run both hot and cold. They only lie by telling a kind of manufactured truth.
GRAHAM CALDWELL -- Through Dec. 28 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-338-5180. www.addisonripleyfineart.com. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 to 6. Free.