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Monday, September 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Overcast
Arts
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Michael Lucero's suspended sculptures give life to the inanimate at the Chazen Museum
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The figures tower over their viewers, emphasizing how small humans are compared to their vast history.

These days Michael Lucero is known for his clay sculptures, but he got his start building human-like figures from old wooden crates in the 1970s. The oversize works in his installation at the Chazen Museum of Art (through Aug. 18) point to a larger-than-life imagination and a big interest in ancient cultures.

Walking through the first-floor gallery feels like a scene from an avant-garde "Jack and the Beanstalk." A dozen and a half figures tower over their viewers, emphasizing how small humans are compared to their vast history. Instead of being anchored to the floor, they hang from the ceiling, which creates the illusion of floating.

Viewed from afar, Untitled (Black and White), a piece from 1978, seems to teem with white letters. Naturally, I wanted to see if they spelled out a message. But up close, they resemble hieroglyphics. The arcane symbols are scrawled on scraps of painted wood and bound with bits of multicolored wire. When a draft makes its way through the room, they move ever so slightly. The strange giant they form personifies the act of storytelling, piecing together bits of narrative that can last longer than a human life or even a civilization.

Nearby is Untitled (Red Twister), another piece from the late '70s. While most of the sculptures in the room look like massive stick figures with arms at their sides, this one doesn't seem to have limbs. If it does, they are heavily abstracted, absorbed by the cyclone Lucero has depicted. But the thin pieces of wood that make up the piece remind me of a skeleton. Once again, Lucero has infused something inanimate with human qualities.

This exhibition also contains a collection of works on paper that Lucero created recently, while pondering the sculptures he made three decades ago. Here, he explores the shapes of his figurative sculptures in two dimensions. Repeated shapes are the building blocks rather than wood and metal. One figure is made of black skulls, another of butterflies. They seem to suggest how fragile human bodies are, even if they're supersized.

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