February 1, 2012

Review: 'Elliott Hundley: The Bacchae' at the Nasher

Artist Elliott Hundley's work, a veritable bacchanalia of textures and found objects, pays fitting tribute to its ancient source material. An exhibit is on display at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

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DALLAS -- Euripides' last play was The Bacchae, a histrionic tale of Pentheus, the king of Thebes, that is full of Dionysian subterfuge, dismemberment, madness and all manner of murders -- filicide, patricide and regicide. It was first produced after Euripides' death around 406 B.C.

Fast-forward two millennia to an art studio in Los Angeles, where sculptor Elliott Hundley used the ancient Greek play and many of its contemporary translations to create "The Bacchae." The enormous works have become Hundley's first museum exhibit. The show was organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts and is currently on exhibit at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Hundley, who turns 37 this week, was at the Nasher supervising the installation and reluctantly agreed to speak to a few people about his work. His reticence stemmed from shyness, but once the initial awkwardness of introductions passed, he was genuinely enthusiastic to talk about his work, his treasured finds -- such as the springs from an old chair, the faded fringe from a patio umbrella -- and the pieces of art he appropriated from artists Lucio Fontana, Paul Cézanne and Brice Marden.

He says it was a teenage fascination with Pompeian frescoes that introduced him to the story of Pentheus. For any museumgoers who are not familiar with the tale, Hundley spells it out, word by word, using letters from old Look magazines like a movie ransom note on the gargantuan multidimensional wall pieces that he calls bulletin boards. This descriptor is almost a pejorative for the elaborately dense collaged panels layered with photographs and old magazine advertisements, punctuated by hundreds of thousands of pins on which dance miniature flowers, photographs, sequins and feathers.

Although most of the elements have been found and repurposed, the result is so dense that few of the pieces resemble their original function. You strain your eyes to select one thing to see clearly, as the various fields move forward and back, making focus almost impossible. This gives the works an amazing animation. Even the large free-standing sculptures have bits that float seemingly in midair, with long, soft feathers that move in the faintest breeze as someone walks by and tiny sequins that bob on their pin stalks, reflecting the overhead lights.

Friends and family members have been enlisted to act the parts within the play, and Hundley photographs them, sometimes using the prints larger than life or as small as an insect. He doesn't bother to dodge the detritus of the studio in the photographs, so this gives another layer of confusion to the imagery, as do the magnifying glasses on the panels of Pentheus and the blue lenses on the Lightning's Bride, which are used to highlight salient miniature moments. The titles come from lines in the play, and for any artist stymied with the need to entitle works, a quick cruise through the ancients would provide ample samples.

There is so much to see in Hundley's work that peering to see clearly becomes an athletic event. Other than the text of the story, there is no actual gore to see, but there are rewards aplenty for those who take the time to parse the particulars. In tearing flesh from the bone, broken baskets represent rib cages, sandblasted roots are the bones, and old beaded curtains substitute for flayed skin. They work when you know the text, and they work if you know nothing about Pentheus, Euripides or Elliott Hundley for that matter. No doubt, though, you will remember his name.

Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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