During its 45 years, the former Hand Workshop Art Center has steadily transitioned from a set of hand-craft workshops for young people to a place where visual media and writing are taught to all ages and art is showcased in organized exhibitions. So that by the time it was renamed the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in 2005, and despite its inadequate and clumsy facility space, it had become a true regional center.
After about a year of construction, the reopening of the Visual Arts Center this month marks a significant milestone in the arts in Richmond. Studio classrooms are improved, and its new True F. Luck Gallery, designed with high-caliber exhibitions in mind, replaces the center's old and limited gallery space. Named for the passionate trustee who helped fund the project, the gallery's ample floor space and high ceilings with exposed original wood trusses -- the building once housed the Virginia Dairy finally provides a suitable environment for the ambitious exhibitions that curator Ashley Kistler organizes.
"Elizabeth King: The Sizes of Things in the Mind's Eye" inaugurates the gallery with an abundance of visual and conceptual surprise. So rich and dense with curiosities that the physical confines of the gallery seem to vaporize, this exhibition begs for more than one visit.
King is a professor at VCU's department of sculpture and a 2006 recipient of an Academy Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, yet she's rarely exhibited locally. Because "Mind's Eye" is the first survey of the artist's work, it's especially fortunate for Richmond that it originates here.
King's lifework centers on the replication of the human figure (hers, specifically, and the women in her family) and how closely it can mimic humanness. While plenty of sculptors produce realistic images of the human form, King stands apart, extending her focus to include how human gesture expresses thought and emotion. One of many elements of surprise in "Mind's Eye" is the extent to which these constructions seem to possess not only a brain, but also the capacity for introspection.
King builds half-size figures and figure parts using materials such as wood, porcelain and bronze. Years of patient and rigorous investigation have led her to study prosthetics, doll and mannequin construction. Her mastery of complex joinery advanced her work from competent puppetlike pieces to sophisticated objects articulated torsos with intensely expressive faces that can be adjusted to hold innumerable fixed poses.
The artist calls her figures and figure parts "instruments" because their poses can be fine-tuned to produce a variety of results. This exhibition highlights the possibility of human expression via gestures both static and animated. One piece does both: a wood hand suspended next to a screen on which an animation of that hand moves as though newly conscious. As curator Kistler explains, "King hopes the viewer will accompany her in imagining how we turn sensations into thoughts."
Think of "Mind's Eye" as one big package containing multiple gifts to be unwrapped. Along with the many samples of King's three-dimensional figures are photographs of them by Katherine Wetzel, framed paper templates, cabinets filled with the artist's collection of glass eyes, mannequins, puppets and tools, and examples of the artist's wax and plaster life casts.
King initiates the Visual Arts Center's new gallery with wondrous work and sets a substantial precedent for exhibitions to come. In February, the exhibition travels to Dartmouth College, and then on to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Brown University and the College of Charleston.
As a final bonus, an exhibition catalog beautifully designed by John Malinoski includes many color photographs of King's art, her collections and her studio, as well as an interview with the artist. S
"Elizabeth King: The Sizes of Things in the Mind's Eye," runs through Feb. 17 at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. 1812 W. Main St. 353-0094 or visit www.visarts.org.