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Thursday, March 5, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`New Work' That's Old-Fashioned -- Calkins' Pieces Are Imaginative, Inspired By Memories

Seattle Times Art Critic

------------------------------- VISUAL ARTS REVIEW

"Larry Calkins: New Work" and "Futuristic Flatware and Silver Ware" Opening reception 6 to 8 p.m. today, runs through March 28 at G. Gibson Gallery, 122 S. Jackson St., Seattle; 206-587-4033. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. -------------------------------

Larry Calkins used to show his folk-artish mixed-media sculptures at MIA Gallery, which until its closure a year ago was the city's best showcase for outsider art and folk-art-inspired work. At MIA Gallery, Calkin's poignant little flattened muslin dresses hung on minimalist armatures seemed dreamy, even historical, as though someone had dug them out of an old cedar chest that had been left forgotten for a hundred years in a prairie attic.

So it's a little surprising to see his trademark stiffened muslin dresses and a couple of dozen other pieces, ranging from tiny paintings to ghostly selenium-toned silver photographs, on display this month at G. Gibson Gallery, a gallery that usually specializes in photography.

But gallery co-owner Gail Gibson said she decided to show Calkins' work because she liked it and because he started out early in his career as a photographer. You wouldn't know that from looking at the few haunting silver prints in the show. They look more like X-rays than photographs. They're captivating but seem to have been created by someone more interested in the surreal possibilities of photography than the usual photographer's concerns about light and image.

One photo, in particular, looks straight out of a 19th-century carnival show, with its grotesque but weirdly wonderful trick of putting a man's face on the photograph of a rabbit. It could be an image from "Alice in Wonderland" or a freak show.

But it doesn't really matter what kind of photography Calkins does now or did in the past. The large show of his work this month at G. Gibson is evidence of a fertile imagination, a storyteller's sense of nuance and a seemingly limitless interest in media experimentation. Not content with making little sculptures out of wire, muslin, shellac, wood and paint, he also has made small beeswax paintings, huge puppet-like textile sculptures that hang from the wall like limp dolls, and touching two-dimensional works that look like the browned pages of a very old book.

In the statement he wrote to accompany the show, Calkins, who lives in Issaquah, says that his work is inspired by memories, observations and the stories that he heard growing up in a small logging town in Oregon. And viewing the work in this gently poetic show, it's easy to see that many of the objects are touchstones for personal histories. There are sweet, simple toy bunnies and dolls that have an antique look about them. There are a couple of 8-foot-long outfits - one simple white dress and a preacher's black suit- that could be clothes for a pair of wraiths. There are pieces that look endearing but have a dark edge, such as the painting called "Execution of a Poacher," which shows a man swinging at the gallows while two huge rabbits look on.

Calkins' deceptively simple, old-fashioned storytelling is a welcome antidote to the frenetic world around us.

Not your average flatware

In the gallery's back gallery, don't miss the show called "Futuristic Flatware and Silver Ware," which is an engaging exhibit associated with the national Society of North American Goldsmiths conference, being held in Seattle at the end of the month. More than a dozen art galleries, museums and jewelry stores in the city are exhibiting art jewelry and metalwork this month to coincide with the arrival of the metal artists, collectors and curators.

In this show, New York metalwork curator Rosanne Raab has assembled some very elegant and fantastical forks, knives, spoons and serving utensils. All have been made recently by contemporary metalsmiths, including some from Seattle. After seeing these pieces, it will be hard to ever be satisfied again with your everyday stainless steel flatware. As with all well-designed, well-made craft, these pieces show that everyday, utilitarian objects needn't be boring and drab.

As a nice complement to the flatware, the G. Gibson gallery has pulled together a couple of dozen handsome photographs and mixed-media works that feature flatware as subject matter.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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