The worst nightmare of most serious artists is having their work labeled "decorative" — as in something that looks good above the sofa. Then along comes Claudia Fitch...

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The worst nightmare of most serious artists is having their work labeled “decorative” — as in something that looks good above the sofa. Then along comes Claudia Fitch, one of the region’s topnotch sculptors, and makes decorativeness look not only respectable but profound.

Fitch prods us to think twice about the objects we choose for our living rooms — those little status symbols and spiritual icons — and the seductiveness of decorative patterns. She pushes décor out of the comfort zone of conventional beauty into a disturbing and much more gorgeous place.

Fitch presents some of her most delicious imagery so far in a show of two- and three-dimensional work titled “Mantel Pieces and Objects on Paper” at Greg Kucera Gallery. Think of it as a foray into the spiritual life of home accessories.

Exhibition review


Claudia Fitch “Mantel Pieces and Objects on Paper,” 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through June 30 at Greg Kucera Gallery; 212 Third Ave. S., Seattle (206-624-0770 or www.gregkucera.com).

Ten years ago, Fitch’s work was easy to classify as postmodern: It references classical Roman art, ancient Chinese culture and the repetitive forms of art deco, and embraces quirky surface treatments and unorthodox color. But postmodernism is a tired concept, and Fitch’s work has blossomed into a confident and utterly distinctive maturity that doesn’t need shoring up with isms.

“Mantel Pieces and Objects on Paper” is a remarkably cohesive show. It mixes up painting and sculpture — Fitch dabs paint on her sculptures and creates spatial illusions in her painted “backdrops” — and echoes around the gallery with the visual equivalent of rhyme and meter. Humans crave familiarity, in sound and in shape, and also adore change. Fitch satisfies those disparate longings by providing doubled images throughout the installation, but with obvious differences. Her “Ghost Objects,” for example, are painted porcelain hybrids — a startled-looking little Buddha figure that’s grown breasts and gone female; an off-kilter samurai with a cubist head and pregnant belly bulge; a female figure that eases into a perfectly symmetrical abstraction of circles and pleats. Each of those fragile objects changes character when it reappears cast in eternal bronze and dubbed a “Mantel Piece.” In effect, you get to see the decorative object and its handcrafted soul.

The show is neatly installed to go from the big important “backdrops” and sculptures in the front gallery to the more intimate color “Interior” drawings in the next room and finally to the sketchier graphite and pencil drawings and small editions. It’s like following the Big Bang back through time to its source.

Fitch is known primarily as a sculptor — she did those daring colossal heads hanging high in the west arcade outside Seahawks stadium — but has a masterful eye when it comes to painting and drawing, too. The pinned-up “backdrops” in this exhibition flaunt her skill in a theatrical way. At 88 by 135 inches, the oil stick and gesso on brown paper “Backdrop (chifforobe)” is a tour de force of spatial ambiguity, with just enough clunkiness thrown in to save it from easy glamour. Its confluence of wavy patterns turns corners and diminishes, detours and unfurls. The grand scale of “Backdrop (scholar’s rock),” complete with all the blips, shadows and voids in its patterning, is heartbreakingly fine. Fitch chose an unexpected treatment of an object originally intended as a desk-top metaphor of the natural world, re-creating it as large, flat, vaporous Swiss-cheese of an abstraction.

In addition to playing with scale, Fitch wields a surprising vocabulary of surface treatments: from the skin-smooth matte ceramic of “Torso” to the rosy bronze of the “Mantel Pieces,” to that weird fuzzy flocking she likes and used here in the sculpture “Calligraphy (kimono walk).”

The elegant installation of the front gallery is framed with two broad, heavy friezes hanging on opposite walls. Usually a frieze is a simple architectural embellishment, but here the pleasing voluptuousness of the coils and curves is interspersed with svelte, lethal-looking spikes. Those spikes inject metaphor into otherwise empty form and got me thinking of wealth, decadence, the power of beautiful objects and what it takes to possess them: of Rome, the French Revolution, the gated elite of contemporary America.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com