Downtown Gallery Shows Off an International Mix of Sculpture, Each Piece No Bigger Than a Shoebox

In a wide array of media and wildly divergent in form and content, 81 small sculptures representing artists from across the globe pack the popular triennial Shoebox Sculpture Exhibition, which is here in Knoxville a second time. Eleven of those 81 artists come from the Appalachian corridor, including Knoxville's own Richard Jolley. Every work is thoughtfully crafted; rich colors and seductive surfaces sing. Organized by the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, the exhibit will have traveled to at least eight other international venues by 2011.

The curators asked only that artists create work sized to fit inside a standard shoebox. Although partly a means to include greater variety, such shows can crowd the work, making it difficult to see sculptures from different angles. Such an installation can also be totally misinterpreted in a consumer culture: Downtown Gallery director Mike Berry noticed that more than one visitor has tried to lift pieces upside-down in order to check for a price tag.

For established artists, a show of this nature can be a welcome invitation to play and experiment with scale, materials, and technique. Several familiar artists came up with innovative approaches to comply with the shoebox-size standard. Texas artist Sherry Owens typically fills rooms with airy sculptural networks made of twigs and branches; her piece here, "The Sun in Your Eyes," reduces the same crape myrtle wood she usually uses into a densely packed ovoid. The hollowed-out interior is cave-like, contrasting light and shadow differently than one would see in her free-floating works. Jolley's "Meta Physical #4" combines glass—a satiny, translucent head and polished black globe—with an open rectangle of steel that is essentially the outline of a shoe box. His usual large-scale glass pieces, always light-hearted and impeccably formed, hold their own with metal while retaining the sensuousness of the glass.

Christopher Curtin's sturdy aluminum suitcase opens to reveal a translucent glass toy rabbit lit from beneath like the Hope Diamond. Barely visible, a small pistol is embedded inside the rabbit. This piece exceeds the size limit, and it might have been even more compelling if the same technically complex piece had been miniaturized by half. Other less memorable works are also larger than a shoebox, causing one to imagine a show with fewer sculptures having more impact.

Many pieces delight. Lena Fisher has arranged miniature people with suitcases, in warm-weather clothing, fleeing across a mountain; the entire tableau, titled "Migration," is encased in a block of clear acrylic so that it looks like folly frozen in ice. Chad Curtis' whimsical "Blue Bird with Seed and Moss" is a ceramic bird jauntily elevated above a fractured pink-and-chartreuse topographic map. Underneath are layers of what could be bird seed, mouse gifts, or tobacco. Whether you favor animal or vegetable, biomorphic forms abound. Linda Lighton's "Bulb With Beetle" sports a sensuous, metallic-plum exterior marked with tiny raised dots and a curvilinear stem and leaf. The skin peels away to create an oval window in front, revealing the smoothest, creamiest seed on which a beetle crawls upward. Eva Kwong ["Spotted Acephalopod"] blends every shade of coral to light rust together on a realistic little creature's pale skin. Many other works move or suggest technology; look for Terry Kreiter's spiky wheel with gears and flipper/wings ("Icarus Cycle").

Others pack a wallop. Australian artist Anita McIntyre's "Weereeraa Vessel" is a small porcelain boat covered with delicate marks that will remind you of floor plans for ship's cargo, particularly the well-known drawing of a slave-ship interior with aligned bodies crowded into the hold. What at first glance is an appealing little craft startles, then dismays, as you draw closer.

There is an interesting technical backstory to this multi-component show. Check out the stack of several large binders at the gallery desk, which show how the preparators designed special heavy wood containers that include custom-fitted foam inserts for each component of every work. Photographs of filled crates taken from above, meant to serve as a blueprint for re-packing, seductively remind one of scientific cabinets of curiosity or the Smithsonian's storage drawers. Perhaps a future show could display a few enlarged images on the wall.