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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Art Review

Threshold states and dark wit in standout show by Tony Matelli

Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has created a stir at Wellesley College.

Steven Senne/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has created a stir at Wellesley College.

WELLESLEY — “Sleepwalker,” an unsettlingly lifelike sculpture of a man wearing nothing but his Y-fronts, became an international sensation last week after it was installed on the grounds of prestigious, all-female Wellesley College. The bronze sculpture, painted to look as real as possible, received all the attention; but in fact it is just one part of an outstanding show by Brooklyn-based artist Tony Matelli at the college’s Davis Museum.

I saw it on Monday. Across the road from the museum, and visible from a top-floor window, “Sleepwalker” was still stopping traffic. By this time, he had already spent a busy weekend being festooned in fancy garb, like a younger brother roped into rites beyond his ken at his sister’s sleepover party. He had raised eyebrows and triggered arguments from Sweden to Saudi Arabia.

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When he finally wakes, how different the world will seem!

Matelli cast “Sleepwalker” from an actual model, but has said he did not intend it as a specific portrait. The model needed, he said, to be in good enough shape to hold a pose during the long casting process. And yet he remains, let’s face it, a schlump. He’s certainly no “David,” in the Michelangelo vein. Asleep, out in the cold, his curdled elbow skin, bald pate, pink back pimples, and blue veins visible for all to see, he is what his creator intends him to be: an endearing, enduring everyman.

He rightly triggers giggles, as men in underpants (at least in my experience) do. But as a sleepwalker, he also triggers something deeper: a kind of pity, tinged with fear on his behalf. He’s out of place, there’s snow in his nostrils, he’s vulnerable.

Seeing a sleepwalker in an anomalous setting (and for a sleepwalker, every setting is anomalous) you feel an almost unbearable tension. You want to wake him, reassure him, save him from himself. But to wake any sleeper, dispelling potent dreams, is cruel — and potentially explosive.

I attribute the petition signed by more than 900 Wellesley students, alumni, and supporters to remove “Sleepwalker” from its prominent placement on campus in part to this tension, this latent volatility – which is heightened, of course, by the extreme realism of the sculpture.

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I take seriously the possibility that a male figure, both naturalistic and au natural, might trigger stress in victims of sexual abuse, as the petitioners claim. But given the obvious and essential vulnerability of Matelli’s figure, the petition does carry the whiff of a slightly affected fragility, surprising in such a robust and renowned institution of higher learning. This is art. It’s not a picnic basket.

Hyper-real sculptures (and Matelli’s work has precedents in mischief-making sculptures by Duane Hanson, Charles Ray, Ron Mueck, Ugo Rondinone, and Maurizio Cattelan, among others) are never about intrinsic values like form and color; they’re about how we relate to them. They thrive on contextual anomaly, and on the frisson of controversy.

Hanson puts a drug addict in an art gallery; Cattelan gives us a three-dimensional pontiff struck down by a meteor. Matelli, in the same vein, puts a mostly naked man in a college for women. But his work is not, in the end, about provocation.

On the contrary, it’s about sympathy. For when it comes to sleepwalkers, it doesn’t matter what words you use or how soft your touch is: the act of yanking a person out of a dream state and into reality is necessarily violent. Once the deed is done, you cannot be meaningfully forgiven, because the self you “rescued” from peril is not the same self as the one who might later thank you.

This awkward movement between two irreconcilable states relates, of course, to mourning, and to the fine line that separates dignity from pathos; the life in things and the death in them.

I laughed repeatedly in the galleries devoted to Matelli’s show, which was organized by Davis director Lisa Fischman. And yet it was a kind of laughter in the dark. It is a show that animates our curiosity about threshold states not only between dreams and reality, but between life and death. Gurgling beneath its witty surface is a black current of dread.

It’s no accident that a large part of the show consists of casts of ordinary windows — thresholds — painted a deathly dark gray. Each is a still life — “nature morte” in the French. In each case, the window panes have been broken, or kicked out, conjuring, for art lovers, a gorgeous dream world of modernist abstractions, but also, more immediately, abandoned warehouses and deserted, crummy apartments. (Matelli studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art on the outskirts of Detroit. Did he have the plight of that city in mind as he fabricated these pieces?)

With a feeling for placement and pause on a par with Harold Pinter, the windows are punctuated with hints of earlier habitation: an old wasps’ nest clings to the corner of one frame. A cactus in a pot stands by another. Two wet socks are draped lifelessly over one open pane. An air freshener in the shape of a Christmas tree flops against one frame, while Christmas lights garland another.

All of it is gray, and dead, dead, dead. In fact, in these brilliantly orchestrated tableaux, the object most evocative of life is a tiny dead bird. Pristine on its back, its wings folded up and its feet in the air, it triggers instant associations with the plaintive, dreaming, zombie-walk of “Sleepwalker.”

Elsewhere in the show, Matelli takes on gravity (the show’s title is “New Gravity”). Several sculptures are trompe l’oeil representations of thick, colored ropes looping and jutting into the air, against the laws of physics. There is an upturned vase holding pink lilies. But best of all is another cast of a man.

This second figure — he looks very ’90s; he’s possibly into Pearl Jam — is dressed in gray shorts, red boxers, a white T-shirt, and an open shirt. But in his own way, he is as unnerving as “Sleepwalker.” Horizontal, he appears suspended one foot above the floor. His head is thrown back, and his open eyes are either dead, unconscious, or in a stupor of ecstasy.

One other possibility exists, of course, and began to seem the likeliest to me: he is moving from one of those states (who knows which one?) into another. He is on the threshold, in limbo.

All the work in Matelli’s show, which also includes a set of wall works resembling random doodles on fogged windows or mirrors, evinces the poetic fragility of what we inscribe on the world and what we leave behind. But even more, it reminds us that we exist, as mortals, in a permanent limbo.

As such, we are forever on the verge of disgrace. For it is death, even more than sleepwalking in one’s underwear, that looms as the ultimate disgrace. None of us can avoid it: we can only sleepwalk toward it, taking whatever precautions we can.

Reinforcing our bewilderment and dismay, Matelli’s broken windows remind us that we don’t even know where true life resides. Does our true life take place outside the window, in dreams and in art? Or is it to be located on the inside, right here, in what we have created and confidently call reality — this preposterous cactus, these cigarette butts, these wet socks?

If the answer is unclear and we are driven, like our hovering friend in the gallery upstairs, to test out both possibilities, who will guide us as we cross over from one state to the other? That beautiful bird is no good to us; it simply bounced off the window. Kaput.

Matelli has proposed a disappointingly fey answer to this question on the other side of the Wellesley campus. Not knowing to look for it, I missed it on my visit — and I’m almost grateful that I did. It’s a painted guide dog, looking, presumably, for its sleepwalking owner.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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