Surface Tension

Opening reception Fri. May 18, 5-7 p.m.

On view through June 9,

Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

54 St. Philip St., 953-5680

Katie Lee likes a challenge.

For the first show she’s ever single-handedly curated at the Halsey Institute, she’s chosen multimedia abstractions that are hard to pin down as sculptures, paintings, or even fine art.

Lee has been a freelance associate of the Halsey for the past couple of years, before which she set up shows at the Eva Carter Gallery in the role of gallery director. She also curated a MOJA Arts Festival show at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park and 2004’s Fresh Work alumni exhibition, the latter with Marian Mazzone at the Halsey. So she’s no stranger to curating, but she hasn’t taken an easy route with Surface Tension (see City Picks, page 31). The show has great artistic merit — it’s just hard to hang, let alone pigeonhole.

Hardest of all are Hiroyuki Hamada’s explorations in form and texture. Some of his sculptures look wooden, rocky, or organic, but plaster is one of the prevalent materials in the artist’s arsenal. The industrial edge to some of his work — he also uses burlap, wood, staples, and drill bits to make round marks and holes — gives a couple of his pieces a martial air. At the top of the stairs, a busy example could be construed as a military map with all its small crosshair circles and crosses. Another sculpture — the only one on a pedestal — faintly resembles the cone of a torpedo.

Other, more hylic pieces might remind viewers of nuts, fungi, or minerals in oversized form. The New York-based Hiroyuki creates his own world of strange yet vaguely recognizable forms with natural symmetry and a series of smaller circles within larger ones. The sculptures are numbered, not named; as visitors walk around the upstairs space of the Halsey they will see a progression from flat rectangle shapes to rounder forms.

Lee sees a Zen brand of serenity in the work that she describes as “powerful in its seeming simplicity,” even though each piece takes two or three years to create. She also likes the ambiguous textures of Hiroyuki’s output.

“It’s challenging the viewer to question what it has to be,” she says. “What it looks like is not always what it seems.”

Downstairs, it’s equally hard to identify the materials used by Cindy Neuschwander (oil and wax are her bag). You can follow a progression of her work, too, from an early piece (“Home Plate”) that contains primitive, hieroglyphic scratchings and patches of color on a panel to more complex abstracts drawn or painted on solid-looking slabs. Neuschwander, from Richmond, Va., painstakingly builds up her surfaces then removes layers again until she achieves her desired effect.

“That process helps to create an element of playfulness and surprise,” says Lee. “She’s exploring the relationship between drawing and painting and sculpture.” Neuschwander’s most striking pieces use varying degrees of color in horizontal or vertical lines. The four-section “Yolk” plays with shades of yellow and mustard; “Apple-Flesh” and “Shadowing the Red” also seem driven as much by their palettes as by their media.

Beyond her self-set challenges of hanging the art, describing abstractions that are “visual in a way that’s hard to put in words,” and juxtaposing the pieces so that they communicate with each other, Lee is also keen to challenge viewers’ expectations of what a Halsey exhibition should be.

“This art can transcend what it’s supposed to be,” she smiles, “especially when the works of each artist speak to each other on various levels.” Abstract wall sculptures are nothing new, of course, but perhaps by combining these two series for the first time, visitors may enjoy an original, compelling experience.