Repetition in art works two ways. Saying something over and over can make it trivial: "Oh, here we go again," people think, "I know this already," and so their attention wanders. Conversely, repetition can create a swell of meaning, especially if the recurring element gets picked up and put back down at a different angle. Huh! It's the same, but now it means something else!
All kinds of artworks take advantage of repetition's possibilities, from the choruses of pop songs to the new exhibit at the Cornell Fine Arts Muse-um. Barbara Sorensen: "Sculpture as Environment" consists of earth-toned ceramics divided into groups of almost identically shaped pieces. Many of the works are slightly larger than life -- you could get your arms around them, but just barely -- and rather than glazed to a smooth, icy sheen, the surfaces are craggy and folded.
At the exhibit's opening reception, Sorensen, standing in front of a series of eight circular slabs called "Shields I," explained how she embeds stones in the clay, never knowing what one will do when the piece is fired: "It explodes or drips or sinks in," said Sorensen, creating "this wonderful volcanic, eruptive feeling."
The ridges and patterns on the big mud pies of "Shields I" are fun to examine, and it's hard to resist the impulse to run your fingers over them. The slabs are cut down the middle, and the two halves don't exactly fit, highlighting a motif: slight misalignments or gaps. Still, "Shields I" doesn't hold up. You're likely to meander away before reaching the last one.
Such slacking off won't happen with "Caryatids," a stunning group of eight bulging columns. Probably every visitor will, with a small blip of awe, head right for this installation -- it's so magnetic, it nearly overpowers the room. Named for female figures used as structural columns in architecture, "Caryatids" looks surprisingly light. The sections balance on each other at their thinnest points, not quite fitting, almost hovering.
"Chalice Forest" gathers together 20 vessels, each big enough to hold a beach ball but balanced on a base the size of a drinking glass. Your eye takes in the overall pattern and also the individual quirks, like the way the muddy blues and peaches emphasize certain folds and crinkles. Any one piece on its own would be merely attractive, whereas the installation as a whole has the quiet charge of looking at a flock of birds that has suddenly aligned into a V shape. And Cornell's pitch-perfect lighting boosts the contemplative tone.
Sorensen aims to evoke natural landscapes -- mountains, the planet's rocky strata and such. Many works look like the inside of a strip-mined gouge of land. Others seem cut from inaccessible beaches or scaly stalagmites, inviting you to think of them as metaphors. Then you realize that these pieces aren't simply like the natural world, they are the natural world. This is clay and rock reformed into new patterns. It's rhythm incarnate, only here it's especially well lighted, luring you to peer from all sides.