The most striking thing about famed sculptor Rona Pondick’s new work is that it doesn’t look like art. Her strange mercurial hybrid sculptures, part animal/part woman, have lots of room in Cranbrook Art Museum and at first sight seem more like the enormous hood ornaments of fancy automobiles or perhaps realizations of corporate logos than the powerful symbols of our time that they are. Pondick’s latest work seems to have leaped from a state of fantasy into a state of shockingly slick object — as if her sculptures are cinematically realized through special effects before your very eyes. The romantic labor that we may envision as part of the creator’s life has vanished — a marked change from Pondick’s earlier works.
In the recent past, Pondick’s sculptures looked more like what we expect from contemporary artists. Her overriding concern has been (as with Kiki Smith and many other artists, especially women) the human body as a site and symbol of contemporary culture. Pondick’s Cranbrook exhibition begins with a few of her earlier pieces. “Mary Jane,” a portrait of a stereotyped American schoolgirl, consists of a pair of tortured white panty hose hanging, like a dried molted skin, and dripping into a pair of cute schoolgirl shoes (the strapped shoes are now also popular among adult women). A cleft in the crotch indicates an excruciating site, a disappeared vagina. The worn shoes themselves carry an agonized story of the human form constrained by the push-pull of contemporary fashion.
In another earlier work, “Untitled Shoe,” a stiletto heel is suspended upside-down in midair with a cluster of black cancerous-like mouths eating through the mesh-covered leg after having, as palpably suggested, consumed the entire body. It is as if in our disconnected binary of body and mind, the mouth represents a primal force that eats through its host. The shoe then becomes a fertile metaphor for identity and personal histories.
Besides the shoe, the amputated head — lacking eyes or a nose, with a ferocious angry mouth — is the other principal symbol in Pondick’s earlier work. In many of her installations these horrific heads multiply in great numbers, thereby accumulating a poignant psychological and social presence.
In “Dirt Head,” an enormous pile of copper-colored earth drifts out from a corner of the museum. Scattered around the dirt in frightening array is an assortment of grizzly heads with tooth-filled, gaping mouths. It is as if a contemporary site of genocide were unearthed to spill its decaying skulls. In a universal or even biblical sense, the piece reads as a symbol of the tortuous, yet even humorous relationship the body has with the yawning, beckoning earth. The mouths seem to smile a dog’s smile as they dissolve (almost like a cinematic fade) back into the waiting soil.
The new work offers a startling change, an almost complete reversal in artistic strategies. As you leave the “Dirt Head” installation and walk into Cranbrook’s large gallery, a sentry-like dog with a human head stands guard. It is a terrible looking thing, particularly for a piece meant as self-portrait. Perched atop the glistening canine body is a hulky human head that, with eyes shut and mouth turned down, seems to carry the burden of the lithe, sinuous body. More like jewelry than sculpture, “Dog” is, like the Sphinx, an artistic riddle that takes patience to comprehend.
Pondick employed cutting-edge digital technology called “rapid prototyping” to create “Dog” and other sculptural self-portraits in stainless steel — crossbreeds of animal bodies and their stereotyped, but primal, identities, and her own body and identity. There’s the limpid “Marmot,” the supine “Cougar,” and the installation of lithe “Monkeys,” smooth metallic figures entwined in an erotic dance. Each sculpture, carrying a likeness of Pondick’s own head and sometimes hands and legs, elaborates on states of taut sexual desire and a strange emotional independence.
While Pondick’s interest in genetic engineering has been used to explain her new direction, it seems more likely that her work is the fruit of advances in digital technology, such as computer-generated imagery and its industrial applications. Pondick’s new sculpture isn’t immediately likable, but it seems to represent a radical change for her, symbolizing the drastic changes in how we, the audience, in an age of slick technology, perceive the world.
Rona Pondick’s show runs until Nov. 30 at Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills. Call 248-645-3323 or 248-645-3361 for more information.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]