I can’t think of a better way to close this decade than to write about a show by an artist who, much to my honor, taught at the same school with me for the last 10 years. If that bit of info, and the added fact that I curated her into an exhibition a few years back, tempt you to take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt, so be it, but I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I didn’t encourage you to make it out to this remarkable exhibition by Kristen Morgin. The seven sculpted cellos (all from 2001) that populate this exhibition descend from both a tradition of figurative sculpture and the tradition of the ceramic vessel being a metaphor for the body. In fact, the equation here between the instrument’s form and the human figure is so palpable as to bring to mind Magritte’s assorted imagery mashing together Homo sapiens and violin-family anatomy, or Man Ray’s photo of the model/muse Kiki with “f” holes painted on her lower back. But Morgin’s forms, made of stabilized but unfired clay over armatures of wood and wire, take the uncanny that became intellectualized and eroticized in the hands of the surrealists, and turn it into something with a kind of guttural gravitas. They have a quality suggestive of rotted crates or rusted cans, as well as decaying bodies, and their sculptural kin ultimately are more that of Giacometti’s often solitary figures. They have about them a profoundly tragic presence, which few artists would any longer aspire to, and that fewer still could begin to pull off without either a glib smirk or a flush of sentimentality. With their suggestion of great age, it’s easy to see Morgin’s cellos as exercises in nostalgia, but the more time you spend with them, the more they seem dead-set on the future, on literally trying to continue holding it together in the instances in which their shells actually function as vessels or containers, and on new possibilities, as in the case of one cello, whose body, well past its playing years, now serves as a birdhouse, with a finch or sparrow perched in a spot analogous to the location of the heart in a human torso. Among the most stirring of vanitas works made by any artist at present, they remind us of the dirt from which we come and to which we return, but they also are resolute, insisting upon being, even if in decay, and refusing to crumble without a fight. Standing as if in stride, they move forward in the world. When one stands among them, the sense of empathy is palpable, as if they are actually resonating and their waves of sound are hitting your flesh. But their music is actually something that wells up within you, low and drawn — something like Old Ansign.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art: 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 101, L.A.; Tues.-Sat., 11a.m.-6p.m., through Jan. 23. (323) 933-9911, marcselwynfineart.com.

LA Weekly