DAILY NEWS ARTS EDITOR
One thing you can count on when faced with a work of art by Edwina Sandys is that there's a smile buried in there somewhere. You can see it in her figures' sly expressions, in the embedded jokes and in the unexpected takes on familiar subjects throughout the retrospective exhibition at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach.
The show features more than 60 sculptures, paintings, prints and drawings spanning the 1970s to the present - spread across the house, studio, slat house and gardens. Touches of humor are everywhere.
In the painting Taurus in the Library, a figure representing the zodiac sign is surrounded by titles such as Midnight Cowboy and The Bull from the Sea. A lithograph featuring drawings from Sandys' book retelling the story of the Garden of Eden depicts Adam being created from the body of Eve. The large-scale sculpture Angel of the Sea and Sky is decorated with cut-outs of fish in the angel's torso and flying birds in its wings.
Sandys, 73, has been a seasonal Palm Beach resident for many years. She is the granddaughter of a painter who is better known as a statesman - Winston Churchill.
One of Sandys' major works, Breakthrough, is a tribute to her grandfather. The 32-foot-long sculpture, which is made of salvaged sections of the Berlin Wall, is installed at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., site of Churchill's 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech.
Although Sandys has sketched since childhood, she didn't take up art seriously until 1970, when she divorced her husband and started her life over again. "I wanted to do something interesting in life," she said.
Success came quickly. In 1971, a friend invited her to show her works on paper at his restaurant. A year later, she had her first exhibition at a London gallery. Other gallery shows and critical praise followed.
During the course of her career, she has created monumental sculptures for sites such as the Vienna International Centre (the United Nations' office in Austria), the Toronto Courthouse in Canada and the University of Missouri in Rolla.
She never went to art school, concluding that at 30, she knew who she was and how she wanted to express herself. "I wanted to get right into it," she said.
It's a mistake to dismiss Sandys' art as fluff, just because it's witty, said David Miller, who curated the show. "Beyond the fun of her art there is a very serious thinker," he said.
Perhaps her most-discussed work is Christa, a bronze female Christ on a lucite cross, which is included in the exhibition.
The sculpture was shown at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York during Easter week in 1984. As James Parks Morton, then dean of the cathedral, said in a recently published book about Sandys, "All hell broke loose. The press was there; films were being made of Christa all day."
The furor only increased when another clergyman had the sculpture removed.
Sandys said she didn't consider how people might react to Christa when she created it. "I just did it," she said. But she wasn't comfortable with how people wanted to pigeon-hole her as a feminist, even though most of her works have a distinctly feminine point of view.
On a formal level, Sandys' work deals with the interplay of positive and negative space, reversed and repeated images, and bold primary colors matched with black and white.
But most of all it's about line. Even her sculptures are "probably two-and-a-half dimensional," Sandys said. "I'm still attached to drawings and line."
The Ann Norton show provided a welcome opportunity for Sandys to display Women of the Bible, a series she created in Palm Beach using some of her neighbors as models. The sculptures have not been exhibited since the late 1980s.
The flat figures are cut from sheets of white polypropylene on which the artist has drawn facial features and other attributes. These are combined with materials such as hanks of rope "hair" for a scissor-shaped Delilah or a transparent canister of sea salt absorbing the body of Lot's Wife.
The artist continues to make art. "I work wherever I am," she said. "Every horizontal surface is always full of stuff."
She hopes the exhibition will bring pleasure to viewers, and, if it generates commissions, more opportunities to create.
IF YOU GO
What: ‘The Art of Edwina Sandys: A Restrospective'
Where: Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, 253 Barcelona Road, West Palm Beach
When: Through April 1
For more information: Call 832-5328 or visit ansg.org