Sweat dreams are made of these

The vortex is surely one of the most powerful and terrifying things in the literary and physical universes. It sucks you in and spits you out; transports you from one time and space to another; it vacuums and broadcasts. And in Travis Townsend’s sculptures on display at the Southwest School, they add the “anxious” promised in the show’s title. Mounted on contraptions assembled from rough-hewn blocks and strips of wood, they might be sieves, reservoirs, megaphones, or lasers. The laminated wood Townsend uses to construct them emphasizes their Charybdis-like powers, whether they’re narrow and mounted on something resembling a farm implement, or shallow and broad, attached to a hand-drawn flower on the wall.

But Townsend’s wonder machines are pure Dr. Seuss, too. The list of resourceful materials reads like a kids’ fort-building scavenger hunt: thumb tacks, masking tape, paint paddles, string, stamps. They represent both the whimsy and foreboding of a play gun made from lumber scraps.

Many of Townsend’s sculptures lead to wall drawings, connected by strings or wooden arms that extend from the “machines.” A cone might attach to more concentric circles, or blow a hot-air balloon traversed by toy tanks. An armature extends from “Another Tankard,” a cross between a tank and Dr. Dolittle’s giant sea snail, to the wall behind, where it looks like either a match or an eraser is rubbing against a cartoon-like brick cloud, from which an enormous bird with X-out dead eyes emerges.

These connections, however tenuous, between the physical inventions and the imagined world suggests the permeable barrier between imagination and actuality. If we dream of tanks when we’re little, will we inevitably make tanks — or at least accept them as a fact of life — when we’re adults?

There are more concrete pleasures to be had, too. The hand-hewn cudgels and basins evoke pioneers and primitivism, while the profiles of modern warfare, Townsend’s “tanks” and “gun barrels,” raise tantalizing questions about the relative charms of devolution.

At least one sculpture’s title suggests that some political interpretation isn’t out of line. “W’s Detector/
Collector” consists of what looks like a gear box of sorts, which ends in a 23-cent presidential stamp on one end, and a crooked nozzle or muzzle on the other. A trap door in the middle opens to reveal what could be either a phallus or a chess bishop — a piece restricted to diagonal movements.

If Townsend’s show effortlessly combines play and work, Holly Hanessian’s show in the adjoining gallery insists you run that indispensable death-match of narrative art — fate vs. luck — through a modern scientific filter. Messages dangle chandelier-like from the ceiling, spelled out in porcelain and acrylic letters strung together with clear filament. Unlike their minimal and conceptual text predecessors, which explored art as pure idea and collaborative construct (and in some cases were directly influenced by Buddhism), Hanessian’s sculptures are more like flat-footed koans: “Accidents Advance Most of Our Lives.” “Luck” is diagrammed in one piece by a four-letter book in which rudimentary drawings on acrylic pages detail the work of

I especially liked a pinwheel book of acrylic, porcelain, and rubber, in which a palm (one of our unique identifiers, and perhaps a map to our fate) and the words “I” and “ALL” fit like a puzzle — because it feels more mysterious and open-ended than many of the works. The other piece I’d take home in an instant is one of only two that deviate from the clear-acrylic/black-
white palette: a bronze and blue-glazed “Spermatozoan” wall-mounted sculpture seems to be swimming toward a genetically delimited future, while referencing in color and design the boundless mystery and cosmological romance of our most ancient creative cultures. •

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