Down the Rabbit Hole

"Doubling" by Jeanne Jaffe

Jeanne Jaffe is not an artist who was weaned on popular culture. And yet her sculptures and installations, on display through May 29 at Arts Warehouse, can feel like models for Sesame Street rejects, or extras from the “Star Wars” cantina scene, or Tim Burton creatures just waiting to be clay-mated.

At Arts Warehouse, where they’re placed on the floor or hang from the ceiling with site-specific deliberation, it’s as if recent inductees to the Island of Misfit Toys gathered for a confab—which is a compliment, of course. Her exhibition, titled “Past, Present …” is childhood whimsy spiked with adult ambiguity. It radiates mysteries that linger long after the gallery visit.

Jaffe’s work explores ethereal concepts like time, memory and identity, and it’s bound to flummox the literal-minded. She creates symbolically rich hybrids of the abstract and figural; it’s as if her creations began transforming from the former to the latter and then stopped partway. What to make of a resin sculpture like “Kneeling Figure,” with its tubular legs below a skinny midsection, bent at the abdomen in pain or prayer, a mass of brain sprouting like a flower from a wiry “neck”?

“Progeny”

“Polygenesis” and “Progeny” are bulbous, vaguely corporeal creatures that have spawned offspring, or are in the process of doing so. “Doubling” is a twinned sculpture joined, Siamese-like, at the hip—a Rorschach blot given color and three dimensions—atop a mirrored surface. “Serpentina” displays a totem of braided horse hair erect in a coiled wood “basket”—less an evocation of snake charming than the ideaof snake charming, imaginatively constructed from disparate materials.

“Serpentina”

I happened to meet Jaffe on my visit to the gallery this week. You can, too, if you visit from 2:30 to 6 p.m. most days up until Memorial Day; she’s working on an on-site project as part of a two-week residency program. She’s happy to explain the meanings behind some of her pieces, which helps spectators wrap their heads around them.

But like much great art, the work can inspire ideas independent of the creator’s intent. One of the show’s most haunting works is the ceiling-suspended “Four Quartets,” inspired by, and incorporating elements of, the T.S. Eliot poem of the title. Lines from the poem, re-created in resin letter by letter, hang vertically on wires among rocks, branches and outstretched, headless figures in white garments, all of them gently swaying in the still, conditioned air.

“Four Quartets”

Jaffe explained that the installation is meant to suggest a deconstructed hospital, with the gowned figures like patients in a kind of limbo; they could be ascending or descending. Cued by the severed branches and the dollops of red on their tips, I intuited something darker: the specter of lynching, the headless bodies the ghosts of the victims. “Strange Fruit” jumped into my mind whenever I admired this sculpture.

Thus, even works that seem grounded in a fantasy artistic vernacular can, and do, resonate with past horrors and present afflictions (hence the exhibition’s title). As for the future, Jaffe may be jumping toward a form of it with her newest work in progress, the puppet show “Alice in Dystopia,” which recasts Lewis Carroll’s characters in an urban wasteland. A few models and backdrops from it are on display in “Past, Present …”, but when complete, the work will be a stop-motion animation with a story that is still in development.

This rabbit hole won’t be pretty, but I for one cannot wait to take the plunge.

“Jeanne Jaffe: Past, Present …” is on display through May 29 at Arts Warehouse, 313 N.E. Third St., Delray Beach. Admission is free. Call 561/330-9614 or visit artswarehouse.org.