NEW YORK — 'I am large, I contain multitudes," the poet Walt Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself." The same might be said of sculptor Michael Lucero, whose work is being shown at the American Craft Museum here. Not that Lucero is physically large, but his work spans multitudes of motifs. The 47 sculptures in the retrospective "Michael Lucero: Sculpture 1976-1995" contain enough references to populate a Whole Earth Catalog.
"The idea of inventing an original form didn't seem interesting to me," the sculptor said in an interview in his Lower East Side studio. "The idea of merging was more interesting. Art is inclusive, so I was never intimidated to clone an image temporarily and then move on."
Lucero's first mid-career survey reveals him to be a man for all continents who creates an aggregate art. His favorite image, often painted on his ceramic pieces, is a moth symbol of metamorphosis. "A moth represents many times and places and changes. It turns into other things, dies, and is reborn," he says.
Lucero's forms inhabit new formats reflecting the history of pottery and sculpture from ancient Greece to pop kitsch. Wearing a Breton fisherman's shirt and moccasins, his fingers smeared with green paint from a face-jug he was painting, Lucero says his works show "art can be fun and compelling too."
Lucero grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, making frequent visits to New Mexico to visit grandparents and soak up the spirit of native American pottery. His earliest works in the show, "shard figures" from 1976, allude to the fragments of Acoma pots he found in arroyos, which excited his imagination, as well as archaeological finds of shattered Greek urns.
He makes these influences his own by hanging the shards from wires to define original shapes, as in "Untitled (Hanging Ram)." Only Lucero would put Humpty Dumpty back together again as the mischievous figure "Untitled (Devil)," whose arms curl into a pitchfork and pointed tail.
Eight phases (Lucero tends to work in series) and two decades later, the artist still fuses a hodgepodge of forms through his singular vision. In his current series, "Reclamations," Lucero appends new ceramic bits to vintage, often damaged artifacts like garden statues.
"Conquistador" (1995) started with a broken patio statue of a Spanish soldier, to which Lucero added a tomato-red teapot as a head. "What could I do to express how this guy acted?" Lucero recalls the process of creating the piece. "I inflated his head and reduced it to a vessel, which is sort of a ridiculous spoof." He collaborates with, rather than dominating, his found objects. "I gave this little figurine another chance to exist. I wanted to dance with it and make something beautiful."
Lucero's work is now seen as a consummate example of post-modern appropriation and multiculturalism, although his pieces predated these art-world trends.
As curator Mark Richard Leach, who organized the show for its first venue, the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C., puts it: "Through the artist's compelling vision, the dynamic conditions of global culture and its history come alive in hybrid objects whose shapes and surfaces resonate with human meaning."
In these politically correct times, using symbols from cultures other than his own draws fire. In a heated debate at the Mint Museum, audience members attacked the sculptor with comments like: "How dare you use pre-Columbian motifs for your own pleasure?"
"When I made these works," Lucero answers, "I never thought they would be in a museum. I made them for me. I wanted to pay homage to native American pottery.... My word, I was trying to say thank you for all my inspiration."
His conglomerate creations reflect how manifold the world has become. "I can't simplify life, but maybe I can show that chaos can somehow be ordered," Lucero says.
An important note of encouragement came to Lucero from Louise Bourgeois, one of the giants of contemporary sculpture. After looking at Lucero's early work around 1979 after his arrival in New York, the older sculptor told the younger man, "The biggest compliment I can give you is to say that your work is very personal. My recommendation is to keep it that way."
"That was very profound to me," Lucero remembers. "I felt that was the only honest way of working." Although he amalgamates diverse influences, the final product is sui generis. When other artists were mimicking Minimalist sculptures based on a stripped-down grid format, Lucero pioneered maximalist sculpture.
An integral component of Lucero's work is wit. "Humor is a way to get a serious point across, to manipulate the viewer's attention," he says.
"You see the pretty colors and frivolous forms, while the profoundness of the idea is penetrating to your being, so the work can affect you on another level."
He continues, "I prefer art which is jarring. I want people to think and rethink."
His work mutates at regular intervals, which makes him hard to pin down. Not following the herd liberated him to experiment. And now that his works have been acquired by prestigious museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will success halt his transformations?
The shape-shifting artist laughs, "I run faster than most people."
* The exhibition travels to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art & Design, Kansas City, Mo. (March 30-July 6), the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (Sept. 19-Jan. 4, 1998); and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (Feb. 28-May 24, 1998). This Web site offers a tour of the exhibit: http://www.charweb.org/arts/ mint/lucero/lucero.html