Sculptor Ken Little operates in the material world—making tangible things, working with the visible, evoking the everyday. Yet he is obsessed with what he calls “what is not there”—the emptiness inside the shell, the nothingness behind the mask, the desire out of reach of the hand.
Texas resident Little walks a thin line between these two worlds, each apparent in his work of the last 30 years. Offering a sampling is “Ken Little: Little Changes, A Retrospective,” an exhibition that features material variations on themes that address Little’s ongoing concern: the absent, the evoked, the “what is not there.”
Masks are the most dominant motif in Little’s work. According to Kathleen Whitney, author of the exhibit’s catalogue, Little’s hollow bronze animal masks “reconnect humans with their animal natures ... grafting human characteristics onto animal physiognomy.” His animal masks “stand in for all things that are the best and the worst in humans,” she writes.
Using the mask as metaphor here and throughout his work, Little explains that he is interested in “not just masks for the face, but masks for the body.” Nondescript business suits and standard-issue dresses are empty vessels, hearkening to Little’s training as a ceramist. Little borrowed the idea from classical sculpture, where clothes were, as he describes, them “something that is not occupied.” The reappearance of suits and dresses in his collection is notable; Little works and reworks these “masks” ad naseum.
“Artists try to make things look right.” Little remarks, quoting his friend, art critic Dave Hickey. “I work until things look right,” Little admits.
The title of the exhibit, “Little Changes,” has two meanings, he illustrates. First, that throughout his work, very little changes. Second, that there are little changes throughout his work. In other words, Little has committed to certain motifs, as well as to the endless revision of the form they take.
Stemming from his interest in masks, Little’s pieces anthropomorphize anything and everything. Cars and houses are extensions of the body, he claims. “The lungs are like the air conditioning, the electricity is like the nervous system,” he continues. “The headlights and the grill look a lot like a face.” Even hands and feet have faces in Little’s art. His earliest work in the exhibition, a telling childhood painting of a snowman, wears a simple smiley face that will appear again and again. “I see faces everywhere,” confesses Little.
He describes “He-Tree” and “She-Tree,” a pair of pieces he made in the ’90s, as “an overlay of childhood vision and adult vision.” Skeletal wooden frames intersected by three or four competing images symbolize how levels of consciousness might superimpose each other, explains Little.
Alternately, he conjures up the spiritual and the abstract in the material. He builds an animal of boots, shoes and belts “returning the skin to the beast with the memory of the damage done.” Art critic Dave Hickey describes one piece as “attached found leather objects to the taxidermist’s models of creatures whose memory the skin evoked.”
Little’s latest obsession is a series of pieces—suits, dresses, a super-size head, and a massive middle finger appropriately titled “Bird”—made of wire-frame and dollar bills. To conclude from this work that Little sees people as being made of not much more than money is not a stretch. Still, he claims that he has no prefabricated notions when creating his art. “The most important thing is that I do what I would have never thought of doing. ... I have to find it.”
Though the current exhibit is called a “retrospective,” the continuation of his series of “dollar bill pieces and body parts,” as Little calls them, will be his focus when he returns to the studio. As with so much else, he is not done.
Why Little keeps coming back to the same issues in his art, he reasons, “I see life like an LP. You start on the outside when you’re a child. The years are really long. Later in life, the years come around faster and faster, but you’re always circling through the same things.”
KEN LITTLE: LITTLE CHANGES. A RETROSPECTIVE, Salt Lake Art Center, Main Gallery, 20 S. West Temple, 328-4201, Through Jan. 11, 2004