Alternative Universe is yet another startling show at a St. Pete gallery with guts

The metal bench in front of Mindy Solomon's gallery in downtown St. Petersburg is an interesting place to do some people-watching. As pedestrians promenade past the gallery's plate glass windows, they often slow down or double back for a second look; if a pair of promenaders passes by, one may say to the other, "Hey, look at that."

Last week, as I sat outside the gallery, one of artist Max Lehman's colorful ceramic sculptures was the object of just such attention. Prominently displayed in a window, the unusual tomato-red figure drew second and third looks. A humanoid body with cartoonishly pliable limbs, its painted face bears a grimace of surreal horror. Emblazoned with the Hebrew letter "shin" on its belly and a scene of a skeleton and a woman eating beneath a curtain of yellow flames on its back, the two-foot-tall sculpture offers an electrifying onslaught of visual information. (Is it an anime devil? A spiritual totem?)

Oh, and did I mention that the dripping swaths of lustrous, dark red glaze, applied atop the figure, evoke streaming blood?

While Lehman's work may represent the outer limits of symbolic stimulation, its hey-look-at-me-wow aesthetic is, to a certain degree, standard operating procedure at Mindy Solomon Gallery, which will observe its first anniversary in October. To come into a town where "ceramics" typically means functional pottery and open a contemporary art gallery devoted largely to figurative, conceptual ceramic sculpture (as well as a select array of photography and painting) is no small feat. Even if you don't like her taste as much as I do, you've got to hand it to Mindy Solomon for having balls — big, ceramic balls.

Her current exhibition, Alternative Universe, is perhaps even edgier than most of the gallery's propositions — but just by a smidge, if at all. (July brings Undressing the Feminine, devoted to gender-bending explorations and deconstructions of womanhood.) The "alternative universes" presented by the artists on view aren't saccharine or remote utopias, but imaginary locales where logic functions in unexpected ways, made intensely present through art.

Rebekah Bogard accesses another dimension through her sculptures of frolicking animals. Clustered in sweet embraces, her blissed-out creatures — in salmon pink and, sometimes, sky blue or iridescent lapis lazuli — sport brocaded skin and, at tail's base, androgynous genital buttons. These species-ambiguous mammals are all innocence and yet unsettlingly erotic. Somehow, through seamless fabrication and intriguing narrative, Bogard brings them to life, vividly; the animals — I mean, sculptures — in turn, draw viewers into their enchantment. This lifelike quality becomes all the more stunning when you realize that Bogard's creations are born from slabs of gray clay, painstakingly molded into forms that appear as soft and lithe as bodies. (For a photo play-by-play of the full process, go to rebekahbogard.com/process.html.)

Lehman's totem-like figures — six on display in total — exude a peculiar visual lure through their dramatic expressions and marriage of diverse iconographies: from the cartoonish (or "low-brow") to the pre-Colombian. Like the striking figure seated in the gallery's front window, "Cheese" — a seated yellow man decorated with cartoon mice (unmistakably suggestive of that famous cartoon mouse) and a face like a Mexican luchador mask — emanates a symbolic power far in excess of its relatively diminutive dimensions.

Richard Heipp, the non-ceramicist of the trio, engages the liminal world of digital imaging in his large-scale memento mori of human figures, skulls and prosthetic body parts. While the finished works are one-of-a-kind airbrush paintings on PVC, each of Heipp's visions begins as a super-high-resolution scan (or scans) of objects arranged on a flatbed scanner. Transformed into a hyperreal picture by the scanner's lens-less vision and eerie light, tableaus of anatomical models, fake eyeballs and vintage photographs invoke old — but still unanswered — questions about the relationship between photography and death (not to mention the relationship between photography and painting), and tensions between ever-improving, machine-assisted vision and the limits of human knowledge and mortality.

Like his counterparts in sculpture, Heipp's virtuoso technique demands a second or third look — a transition from simply looking to really seeing, and comprehending, the constructive work behind the appearance.

As a gallery owner, Solomon could probably make a lot more money by selling art that offers fewer conceptual challenges than this stuff. But something tells me that when you have ceramic balls as big as Solomon's, it just doesn't even occur to you to play it safe. If in visiting her gallery, you feel as though you've been transported to an alternative universe, enjoy the feeling — and then step outside, back into the St. Pete sunshine.

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