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Saturday, December 17, 2011 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Art review
Sculptor Philip McCracken's cosmic turn

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

Guemes Island sculptor Philip McCracken is best known for his stylized renderings of birds and other denizens of the animal kingdom.

But in "Aether," his marvelous new exhibit at Sisko Gallery, he's taken a decidedly cosmic turn.

McCracken hasn't forgotten terrestrial critters altogether. The show includes a "Meditating Frog," "Bird Family" and "Mole Greeting the Sun," all in bronze and all enchantingly done. But it's the outer heavens, with their constellations, galaxies and black holes, that grip him these days. Now in his early 80s, McCracken's steady focus is on what lies beyond the diurnal rhythms of our humble Earth.

The most unusual piece in "Aether" may be "Aurora" (2010), which captures the elusive light of the aurora borealis in fruitwood and acrylic. Diaphanous streaks of color are scored and infused into the wood, which opens up like a geometric suitcase that offers a private, spectacular glimpse of the otherworldly.

Several small-scale sculptures from 2010 weave variations on a 1991 piece in the show called "Night Sky." A maple-and-epoxy-resin fabrication, "Night Sky" resembles several cross-sections of starry heavens fused into an angular amalgam. The smaller newer pieces — "Night Sky I," "Night Sky II," "Gravitational Flow," "Study for Shattered Constellation" — are akin to sharp-edged extracts of the cosmos you can hold in your hand. They're all done in fruitwood and epoxy resin, and it's easy to enter them imaginatively and lose yourself in their spiraling galaxies and star formations.

"Aether" also includes almost two dozen recent paintings, all done with epoxy resin on wood panel or Masonite. Many continue McCracken's small-scale exploration of a limitless universe. The titles — "Cosmic Flair," "Deep Space," "Black Holes with Converging Horizons" — vividly evoke their subject matter.

McCracken uses the same medium to render more familiar sights. "Descending Moonlight" shows a pale yellow moon diffusing its light into a nightscape suffused with shadows. (Are those fir trees? Is that a lake?) "Starry Night on Cold Mountain" is close to a traditional landscape painting, but no less potent as it gives you a sense of peering into the void from a precarious perch.

Some of the paintings — "Red Rain," which conjures the weather systems of an unfamiliar planet, or "Sunrise in Hades," with its sickly yellow hues — approach the realm of fantasy. "Rush" is purely abstract, depicting no specific object but conveying an urgent sense of conflict and momentum. McCracken even slips in some literary allusion with "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza," in which the colorful blobs do call to mind the roaming figures from Cervantes' classic — once you've read the title.

Many of the wood-panel pieces seamlessly incorporate the natural grain of the wood into their composition. ("Arctic Night" and "Black Holes with Converging Horizons" are especially vivid examples.) McCracken has a keen eye, too, for transforming found objects into works of art. He does so with a cedar trunk in "Unified Field Theory" and with a fruitwood bough in "Path of the Challenger."

The latter dates from 1992, but McCracken for years found it too disturbing to put on public display. The upwardly torquing shape of the bough mimics the vapor trail of the doomed spacecraft and culminates in an abrupt, red-stained cutoff. It's a powerful work — and something of an anomaly.

It's the long-perspective, heavenward-gazing companion pieces to "Challenger" that sound the dominant note of this fine show.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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