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At the Art Museum of the Americas

to Jan. 9

If anything is the antithesis of pop art’s high-contrast color and line, it’s a big hunk of tree. Since the ’50s, artist Marisol Escobar has been using trees—heavy wood blocks, most human-sized or larger—to form the bodies of her figurative sculptures. As if transposing the awkward chunks of cubist collage into three dimensions, Marisol (like Madonna, she tossed her family name) casts, paints, and pastes faces and limbs onto block-bodies that she leaves uncarved—save the occasional angular protrusion marking a potbelly or a breast. Although her sculptures look clumsy next to the sleek repetitiveness of much pop art, her knack for appropriating images and found objects has associated her with that movement since the get-go.

Her work from the ’60s and early ’70s found Marisol borrowing photos from fashion magazines and advertisements and pasting them onto her wooden mannequins, but those sculptures’ tart contemporary references were tempered by their blockiness. While the yellow and orange dresses Marisol painted onto her sculptures of fashion-forward ’60s girls were as bright as any of Lichtenstein’s Benday dots, the girls looked uncomfortable in their heavy block bodies: The liberated ’60s woman found herself in a new consumer prison.

Almost 40 years later, Marisol hasn’t given up her penchant for pine—one of the many kinds of wood she rescues from demolition sites near her New York City home. Of her 14 recent works on view at the two-story Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas, all but one are wood. In these latest works, the 69-year-old artist makes monuments to historical figures—both real and fictional—including John F. Kennedy, various Native Americans, and Scarlett O’Hara. But Marisol is so focused on canonizing her subjects that they devolve into one-dimensional do-gooders. Only Jedediah Purdy could tolerate such extreme earnestness.

But Marisol’s no West Virginia homeschooler. Born in Paris to Venezuelan parents, she inhabited the kind of chichi world that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about: a land of propriety and plenty, renowned for breeding obedient girls who marry well. Doubtless the bright and gawky wooden assemblages she became known for were not what her parents had in mind when they sent her to Paris’ prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Academie Julian for an art education intended to be equal parts thorough and stodgy. In 1950, at the age of 20, rebellious Marisol dumped Paris to move to New York. There, she studied at the New School for Social Research, where she made sculptures from wood and synthetics. She also did a stint in Provincetown, Mass., under abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann. By the time she returned to New York a few years later, she was making works that married slickness and crudity—and the resulting discord made the pieces dynamic.

But these days, Marisol is intent on being earnest. In her sculptures about folks from the 19th century on display at the AMA, she idealizes life before contemporary media frenzy, making the subjects of two of her portrait groups—one, Tom Thumb’s dwarf bride, Lavinia Warren, and her second husband, Count Primo Magri; the other, the Roebling family, designers of the Brooklyn Bridge—seem overly humble and stolid. The incisions carved into the portrait head of John Roebling make him look very, very serious and very, very staid. Marisol seems to think that people were devoid of manufactured bravado before paparazzi photos were splayed across the pages of the tabloids. The two sculpture groups garner only hazy half-interest—their wooden expressions rob them of sass. They may not have mugged for the camera like Melanie and Antonio, but surely the Roeblings had more personality than this.

When Marisol crosses the line between serious and overserious, her missteps end up looking particularly bizarre. In The Funeral, a sculpture that riffs on the famous photo of young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s cortege, Marisol plays with scale to convey a child’s perception of tragedy. The wooden sculpture of JFK Jr. may only be 3 feet tall, but the passing procession is microscopic: There’s nothing taller than 5 inches in this cavalcade of soldiers, horses, and hearse tromping solemnly across the parquet floor. The inverted proportions express childhood’s distortions well. But the striations in the wooden block used to carve little John-John’s head lend the toddler some unanticipated wrinkles, making him look awkward.

This show does have some very funny moments, but I’m not sure they’re all intentional. In her rush to monumentalize unrecognized Native American heroes, Marisol appears not to notice that her work can have the opposite effect. Take the over-9-foot-tall sculpture of Sioux warrior Rain-in-the-Face, whose carved head, with its distinguished wrinkles and square jaw, looks confident and manly: Marisol plops his head onto an almost 6-foot-tall tree trunk (there are a few slivers of bark showing, but most of it has been shaved off) without any reference to arms or legs—and no apparent means of locomotion. The artist has simply attached a round, geometrically decorated wooden shield to the trunk. Marisol’s trying to show us that Rain-in-the-Face is stable and earthy. But the mighty warrior looks more like the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who insists that his lost limbs are “but a flesh wound.”

Marisol’s better off when she’s more light-hearted. In A Stroll Down Peachtree Street, her take on Gone With the Wind couple Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, the artist snubs social convention right along with the ignoble duo. Scarlett and Rhett are shown pushing their illegitimate baby in a cart down their neighborhood streets, staring defiantly back at those who try to shame them. Scarlett is a gracefully geometric figure, with her bustled skirts forming a trapezoid and her hat a perfectly round circle. Her carved soapstone face is inserted below black-painted wooden hair. The luminous stone makes her expression so lively it practically leaps out from her wooden body; her arched brow strikes a defiant pose on her porcelain skin. There’s nothing pathetic or patronizing about Miss Scarlett’s determination.

In the same piece, Marisol departs from her usually somber earth-toned palette to define the gathers of Scarlett’s dress. The bustier and skirt are marked with graphic crimson stripes that leap out from the pale wood grain, making for a dynamic juxtaposition of hard-edged line and warm wood. The piece reminds us of the war between organic and man-made that infused Marisol’s earliest work with lifeblood—something this show is sorely missing. CP