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Originally published Friday, February 26, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Review: 'Ray Jensen: Sculpting a Life' at Nordic Heritage Museum

An exhibit at Nordic Heritage Museum examines decades of work by local sculptor Ray Jensen.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibit review

'Ray Jensen: Sculpting a Life'

10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays, through April 18, Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 N.W. 67th St., Seattle; $4-$6 (206-789-5707 or www.nordicmuseum.org)

It's easy for a work of public art to "disappear" if you see it every day. Long familiarity can make even something striking seem faded, routine, invisible.

That may have been the fate of local artist Ray Jensen's works, which adorn the lower lobby of McCaw Hall ("The Dance"), Suzzallo Library ("The Waiting Multitude") and Rainier Beach Library ("The Pursuit of Knowledge").

All the more reason, then, to investigate "Ray Jensen: Sculpting a Life," a retrospective at the Nordic Heritage Museum covering close to 70 years in Jensen's career and casting a fresh, intelligent light on it. (Jensen, 80, is a former instructor at Cornish College of the Arts and Bellevue Community College.)

The earliest pieces in the show are in wood and date from the 1940s, when Jensen was in his teens. In "Woman with Cat," he teases a beguilingly silken line out of his material, while in "Untitled (This Gun for Hire)" he translates the trench coat and fedora of a film-noir classic into pure, delectable slink — no face visible, only shadows and folds.

These small sculptures attest to Jensen's innate talent, especially his fine sense of form and line. That sensitivity got pulled in another direction when he first encountered the elongated forms of painter-sculptor Alberto Giacometti and swiftly incorporated them into what he was doing.

"The Race" and "The Hurdlers," both from the 1950s, stretch limbs and torsos into stick-figure proportions endowed with a forward-hurtling energy. "Nameless/Destiny," also from the '50s, portrays a single, hesitant, masculine figure, again in exaggeratedly thin form — but embodying some of Jensen's future concerns with fate, chance and choice.

All three seem less an homage to Giacometti than a frank imitation of him. But with "The Pursuit of Knowledge," Jensen starts to come into his own. Three male sprinters are melded into a single winged form, their torsos flattened into slabs, the better to give them a sense of aerodynamic lift.

From the 1960s on, there seem to be two impulses in Jensen's work: a leaning toward the sober and abstract, and an urge to celebrate family and friends. Sometimes the two combine. In "Father Figure with Baby," you sense the father's anxiety as he tries to read the future in his child's eyes. The five figures "Us" more lightly suggest family peril even as they capture an exhilarating family dynamic.

Still the strongest pieces are reactions to the tumult of the 1960s, ranging from the JFK assassination ("Reaction III") to the street protests of the decade ("Consensus," in which five welded figures in different states of agitation pull in different directions, straining to a point where rectangular slashes score their torsos, undermining their seeming solidity).

Jensen's latest work suggests he can be downright corny. But this show makes it hard to dismiss him. "Ray Jensen: Sculpting a Life" is exactly what it intends to be: a re-evaluation of the surprises and familiarities of an artist in our midst.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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