Off By Christopher Sproat

George Lucas, are you listening?  Have I got a Christmas present for you ? at the august Boston Athenaeum, of all places.  It’s a 10-foot-tall wood, paint, brass, neon and acrylic object called simply “Vader,” by Christopher Sproat, an artist born and trained in Boston and now living in New York.  “Vader” is an abstraction rather than a full-out portrait, all sharp angles with that famous, helmet and a couple of lightning-like tubes of pale, glowing neon representing ? what else? –  The Force.  The dark lord and a group of related neon and black wood sculptures form Sproat’s marvelous installation, “The Silent Studio,” at the Athenaeum, 10 1/2 Beacons Street, through Jan. 5th.

Sproat’s considerable reputation has been built both on work that is functional ? he’s done the dining tables of some of Boston’s most important art collectors ? and also on work that seems as if it could be functional, but isn’t.  There are several machine-like contraptions in the current show which look as if they should do something, but don’t: All those Duchampian saw tooth angles suggest the busyness of machinery, but these are nonsense machines whose real purpose is to puzzle or even frighten us.  Even their elegance is slightly scary: Consider those crisp, complex contours standing in knife-like, authoritative relief against the pale walls.

The work is intensely theatrical, partly due to the drama of the flat, factual, black matte surfaces played against the neon, partly because of the exaggerated proportions:  Chairs have tall backs, like thrones, or impossibly long spindly legs, as in the pair of 1977 “Egyptian Chairs” ? boldly frontal, doll-size seats attached to legs six times as long as a normally proportioned chair.

“Desk /Lamp with Cat Chair” is the only really usable work in this Sproat show.  It calls for either a character of Vader-like aggressiveness, or else someone with Walter Mitty visions of grandeur, who is willing to be transformed.  The chair is a single folded rectangle of wood, like a bent bookmark, with a pair of triangular forms on top that reads like the cat’s ears ? or like the points of a king’s crown.  The desk is long and lean, with a reading lamp ? a tube of incandescent light – extending all the way across.  The braces of the lamp stick out beyond the sides of the desk:  They are dangerous, like someone’s elbows jutting out in a crowd.  To sit in the chair, behind the desk, is to feel power and confidence:  In this setting, you could talk back to your boss or take on an IRS examiner.

Sproat’s pieces, which are independent of each other yet work together as an eerie installation, invite flights of fancy.  In the distinguished surroundings of the Athenaeum they are particularly unsettling, positioned as they are underneath a series of patrician 19th-century portraits.  Said gallery director Donald C. Kelly the other day: “It looks like a rocket to the moon and you’re dragging your ancestors along”.

Sproat will visit the Athenaeum a week from today to give a talk called “A Separate Culture” at 7 pm. For reservations call 227 ? 8112.