The Blobs That Ate Richmond 

What's inside artist Robin Dintiman's "Foam" sculptures? Uh, don't ask.

Artist Robin Dintiman was fit- ting the long, rectangular West Gallery at the Richmond Art Center (2540 Barrett Ave., Richmond, 510-620-6772) with ten pieces of sculpture in preparation for her show, "Foam," when two women wandering around the neighboring exhibit popped in to see what was going on. Dintiman was in the midst of hanging seven sculpted masses from the ceiling, while an eighth rested by the doorway on its side. Two more large forms stretched out in the courtyard, visible beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. "What are they supposed to be?" the visitors asked. "Drumsticks?"

Dintiman laughed. "Whatever you want them to be," she said.

They can evoke many different things, but in reality the sculptures in the show are shaped, yellowish foam forms that swell and often extrude material, some of it visible, much of it not, but all of it organic -- dried flowers, branches, sculptures -- and in a state of flux. "I work from the inside to the outside," Dintiman explains. "The inside of the work has to have as much integrity as the outside." Because of that, she can spend up to a year preparing the core material, shaping wood to a particular form while subjecting it to the elements, collecting old work ready for recycling, or drying flowers. The core material is wrapped in burlap, and then it's ready for the foam.

To get the yellowish matter that surrounds the core like a huge cellular mass, Dintiman uses industrial insulation that leaves the mélange in a gelatinous liquid state. As she applies it, she throws her body at the foam in a kind of improvisational dance, whipping up the shape in less than ten minutes, which is the amount of time it takes for the material to set. To work, she dresses in old clothes or plastic, wears a heavy vapor respirator, and throws open all the doors of her workspace, since the insulating material is highly toxic. " I have only a ten-minute window in which to work, and that window forces me out of my head and into my body. I have to use my whole body, so it's much more honest." The results can never be a product of pure calculation, she says, because the material has its own dictates. "It's like real life. I love that challenge."

Unlike metals or even wax, insulation foam is very lightweight -- it has to be to do its job inside the walls of buildings without compromising their structures. When Dintiman discovered the foam, it enabled her to leave behind the work crews that were indispensable to her earlier work in bronze. Now, not only can she work large and alone, but more intimately and privately as well. And now, she says, the evolution of her work more authentically reflects her solitary process of incorporating knowledge, experience, and meaning, then building upon it in each new stage of her life.

The sculptures, neither pretty nor obscene, have the ability to disturb viewers with their likeness to pods, cysts, or fat-encrusted bodily organs. Whatever they evoke, one element is constant: Each piece seems plucked from the natural world with an air of disarming intimacy and unabashed frankness.

"Foam" runs through March 22. For more info, visit www.therichmondartcenter.org"

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