Commanding Compassion 

The Intimate Sculptures of Cynthia Lahti

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The sculptures of Cynthia Lahti are like a pair of bronzed baby shoes, sitting on a dusty bookshelf—dimply fragments, packed with nostalgia. Nurse, Lahti's new solo show at PDX Contemporary, ignores any hint of the spectacle so trendy these days in contemporary sculpture. Instead the artist presents what feels like a series of studies, marked by her signature raw patina.

Known for her skill in multiple media, Lahti presents middle- to small-sized sculptures plus drawings. At first glance the show may seem scattershot: Several clay pieces, on pedestals of various heights, converge in the center of the gallery. A handful of drawings pepper the walls. The title, Nurse, helps bind the disparateness—all of the work is figurative, and many wear the nurse uniform (replete with old-fashioned caps).

Yet among these caretakers is a motley crew: What to make of the clown characters and Alice in Wonderland personas? There's a loose connection in an allegory of touch and tending. The clay is lumped with Lahti's fingerprints, and her paper wrinkles and buckles under the weight of washes. In a primarily white piece called "Heart Mask," a man embraces a woman (the latter has something like a Valentine's Day chocolate box for a face), and pink radiates from their point of contact. Other figures fuss with their hair, adjust hats, carry cups.

Most successful are the smallest sculptures, which have that tenderness hinted at everywhere else, but which comes across strongest at an intimate scale. In particular, the suite of masked misfits—six pieces set side by side, easily held in the palm of your hand—lurking in the back of the gallery. One, titled "Round Mask," is a childlike figure fixed to a bright red block of wood, with his arms out, cuffs dangling: Maybe he's being carried by a gust of wind, or maybe he just needs help removing his winter jacket.

Either way, the collection commands compassion. A feminine sensibility prevails. Kiki Smith's work comes to mind, especially considering the folk-like characters (e.g., a coy girl in a dress, poised with her hands behind her back, wearing a cat mask). Lahti's art isn't quite so mischievous or confrontational as Smith's; although quirky, it seems rooted in observation rather than fantastical fiction. The characters are contemplative, caught between moments, glazed by a history all their own.

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