Pledge, dollar bills and steel, 2002
The Southwest School explores the evolution of sculptor Ken Little

In meeting artist Ken Little, it's easy to picture him as a small child on the high plains of Amarillo, a Red Rider BB Gun in one hand and a Silver Surfer comic book in the other. That collision of past and futuristic fantasy created a strange formative environment for the budding sculptor. Each of Little's objects - now on display at Southwest School of Art and Craft - harbor a telltale, self-conscious irony. Like their creator, they are doggedly engaged in a philosophical do-si-do that typifies the head-scratching absurdity of the contemporary American experience.

The wide selection of Little's work includes early ceramic portraits and more recent bronze, neon, and steel hybrids - revealing a balance of high craft and nuance. Paint, ceramics, clay, hay, performance, papier mâché, shoes, bronze, leather, neon, steel, taxidermy forms: Little is not content with one mode of expression, indicating his active and ever-changing relationship to the world at large. His exploration of each medium is an attenuated thought, stretched to its logical conclusion.

After graduating from Texas Tech in 1970 with a BFA in painting, Little migrated to Salt Lake City, Utah for his MFA. There, his interest in painting waned in favor of ceramics. In the '70s, ceramics existed at the very edge of contemporary art practice, straddling a blurry distinction between academia and the traditionally defined "outsider" art of the uneducated masses.

Little began mixing clay and found objects with ceramic shards, fabricating flamboyant hybrid sculptures - large-scale ceramic "portraits" that earned him national attention as he crisscrossed the country over the next 10 years. During the '70s and '80s, he taught at schools throughout the nation: the University of South Florida, Tampa; the University of Montana, Missoula; the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred; UC-Davis; the University of Oklahoma-Norman. He finally landed at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1988.

Bird, dollar bills and steel, 2002
The belated return to Texas evoked stirrings of nostalgia for Little, whose psyche was molded in West Texas during the '50s, a period of flux between a romantic, Technicolor past, and fantasies of a technology-driven future. In this era, the quintessentially American ideal of the rugged individual became a source of social controversy. The individualistic rebel was no longer a hero, but a dangerous, antisocial loner - a new, negative construct that supplanted the hero on horseback. With this conceptual shift in mind, it isn't surprising that Little often turned to the animal kingdom for solace, employing its many players in a mock mythological eulogy of the flawed human condition.

In San Antonio, Little's muse evolved again, this time guiding him to select bronze as his mode of expression. His well-known bronze animal masks of the late-'80s and early '90s are a heartfelt attempt to circumvent the perils of modernity - at re-linking man with his unpolluted, prehistoric state. Instead of using fragile, tainted human forms, Little anthropomorphizes wild beasts - creatures that flourish in spite of their environment. He imparts their


Through September 7
9am-5pm Monday-Saturday
11am-4pm Sunday
Southwest School of Art & Craft
Navarro Campus
1201 Navarro
truncated heads with an inhuman resilience, while endowing them with distinctly humanoid physical attributes. Their frozen faces lament the widening dislocation between man and his environment. They also hint at a possible reconciliation between the two by gently reintroducing man to carefully chosen aspects of his own animalistic nature.

Little's later steel sculptures are skeletal animal forms reconstructed from molds of discarded shoes and bulky humanoid carriages meticulously tiled in authentic greenbacks. They exist like elegantly decoupaged tortoise shells, funerary objects poached of meaning and sucked dry of intent. Each dangles in feigned flight or coerced restfulness, also attempting reconciliation with nature - but failing to do so.

Little's ongoing critique of the American condition exists without malice. He celebrates humanity's fickle contradictions, and reminds us - through shared myth and subtle supposition - that our flaws make us human. These days, it is not uncommon to meet a well-known video artist who has no idea which way to point a camera or an artist working in bronze who can't make a mold to save his or her life. Little's skill and craftsmanship distinguishes him from the current legion of conceptual artists who tend to hold concept above execution. •


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