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12.03 Creeping You Out at the Decordova

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The Weird, whimsical world of sculptor Pat Keck
What: Puppets, ghosts and zombies: The sculpture of Pat Keck
Where: At the DeCordova Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln
When: Through January 18, 2004

December 2003 – Sixty carved wood sculptures by Andover artist Pat Keck have turned the main gallery of Lincoln’s DeCordova Museum into a fun-house that draws you in and just as quickly, spits you out. It’s a creepy, yet fascinating show, on view at the DeCordova through January 18.

Pic: “Watchman,” automated, carved wood, mixed media (near life size)

Keck’s early works contain a touch of whimsy, like the black and white painted “Mannikin” from 1980, with its too-wide smile, tuft of unruly hair, and screw-eye hinged shoulders. Her life-sized “Pushmi-Pullyu” racehorse, with opposing heads and no rump, was actually run in a Cambridge footrace in the mid-80s.

Looked at long enough, the works begin to take on an otherworldly quality giving viewers a feeling of unease. On the one hand, these figures are masterfully sculpted from pine, cut and milled from the artist’s own backyard forest, and beautifully finished in brilliant enamel colors reminiscent of carnivals and circuses. But then there are the blank stares, the immobility, and the incongruity.

On a large geometric red, black, and grey sideboard with painted stars in the background, sits “Dummy with Seven Heads.” He simply stares off into space, along with six additional heads, all neatly arranged in a row above him. Are the heads interchangeable daily? The longer we look at him, the more uncomfortable we become.

The museum does little to dissuade us from these creepy notions. The large gallery space is broken up into several three-cornered rooms with walls painted in large triangular areas of grey that echo the eerie silent film, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.” This 1919 German Expressionist movie was the first and one of the greatest psychological horror flicks ever made, complete with its triangulated and tilted sets that lent greater dread to the appearance of Conrad Veidt as the murderous preternatural somnambulist.

Pic: “Man with Time Running Out,” automated, carved wood, mixed media.

This film, along with the German New Wave sounds of Klaus Nomi (1944-1983) virtually compelled Keck to produce her first mechanical sculpture, “Memorial to Klaus Nomi,” wherein at the press of a lever, the singer’s life-sized simulacrum laboriously sits up and then slowly lies back.

From here on it’s downhill all the way (or uphill, depending upon how twisted your mind is). “Man with His Head on Fire” is just that. His flame-red hair fairly crackles as his internal inferno flickers from deep inside his eyes. The nearly life-sized, “Watchman,” impeccably dressed in a black suit and shoes of Keck’s own design and manufacture, just sits in a stiff high-backed black chair and looks out. Only a few moments are needed to discover that his riveting blue eyes are moving slowly from side to side – taking everything in – as his left hand slightly twitches in disgust. Or is it anticipation? Suppressed anger? What?

Pic: “Dummy and Dummy.” (near life size)

One seemingly innocuous work is “Man with Time Running Out.” This black-suited white-faced character with a Warhol-style haircut, sits staring at a small hourglass. On close observation, we can see that sand is actually dribbling through the glass. When the last grain falls, the doll slowly leans forward, lifts its hand, inverts the glass, and slumps back to its original position. Then we, just like the puppet, anxiously await the passage of time to see if the little guy will repeat his action.

Another mind-bending work is “Accompanist,” a seemingly benign, albeit well dressed, character sitting docilely at a small keyboard. Visitors are invited to play a few notes on a second set of keys. Moments after these notes are struck, our little friend snaps to attention and repeats, sound for sound, what was just played. Try as one might: chords, atonality, riffs, or vamps, he cannot be fooled. But, hey, it’s just a puppet. It’s only a piece of carved wood. Does it really know what we’re doing? Can it think on its own? How does this thing work anyway?

Pic: “Three Conga Drummers,” (actually play different drum beats)

These are just some of the thoughts that Keck’s works engender. Who is the puppet and who is the puppeteer? Are we to go through life mindlessly performing the same routines? Is it all fate and predestination? Who’s pulling our strings? Keck’s sculptures may not be as malevolent as Chucky, but they’re certainly far removed from good ole Howdy Doody.

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