IN the world of sculpture, somewhere between the exploitation of merely eccentric form and the inability to rise above conventional form, lies individual vision in command of specific form. The result can be liberation.
A visit to the 90 works of contemporary sculpture presented by the New England Sculptors Association (NESA) in an atrium gallery at the Federal Reserve Bank here, is a mix of all three - the eccentric, the boringly conventional, and a number of lovely flashes of liberation.
NESA, functioning for more than 40 years, is the only artists' organization in New England created for sculptors.
Where art museums and commercial galleries are highly selective and competitive, the community organization is like a mother, accepting and encouraging every child. This display is in many ways more accessible and whimsical than a blockbuster exhibition offered by a big art museum with a cultural reputation to protect.
Here you can find the sympathetic warmth expressed in ``Riding Lesson,'' by Merrilyn Marsh. This mahogany work, about 3-1/2-feet wide by 5 feet tall, depicts two young girls on a small horse with a long-haired woman standing next to them. Her arms embrace and gently steady the pair of riders while the horse's head and neck are down, nibbling grass.
The power here is in the sureness of vision released from the wood. Despite the bulky intricacy of arms, knees, heads, and horse, the work remains intimate and loving with a roundness to it reminiscent of the figures of Thomas Hart Benton.
For sheer whimsy and wonder, three works are outstanding. Judith Morton's ``With the Greatest of Ease'' uses chicken wire and window screening to create three life-size trapeze artists tumbling overhead in the atrium, two caught in the act of swinging and clasping hands, and the third doing a handstand in billowing pants. The impression is airy and breezy, material and intent meeting in delight.
Joseph Ferguson's ``Chroma,'' a huge and abstract birdlike creature made of bent and welded aluminum rods and colored acrylic panels, stands on the floor - sometimes a bird, sometimes a spaceship. Either way it echoes Alexander Calder and hints at Salvador Dali.
In Jay Hungate's ``Environmental Device,'' an inverted white cone-shaped sculpture with tripod legs becomes an environmental warning device with bubbling water and an antenna that rises and lowers automatically. Pseudo solar panels protrude from the sides of the cone.
Is this ``device'' warning Earth of trouble? Has it come from another planet to test our atmosphere?
No such questions arise with Richard Newman's ``Monument to Cowboys.'' Here is a gaudy shrine to the Hollywood cowboy from Hoot Gibson's day to John Wayne. Newman has placed old cowboy postcards under glass in an abstract but geometrically balanced vertical enclosure peppered with plastic guns and little plastic western figures.
The cowboy faces are familiar to anyone who watched cowboy movies from the 1920s through the '50s: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Don Red Berry, Wild Bill Elliot, Little Beaver, Bob Steele, Randolph Scott, and others. The shrine has small fake wagon wheels symbolically rolling the whole transformed artifice deeper into the Hollywood distortion of cowboys.
In stone and bronze, two works are outstanding. Ruth Cowell's 2-foot tall ``Earth Mother'' is a minimalist rounded chunk of pewter-colored ``wonderstone.'' The pregnant earth-mother has a smooth off-white round stone placed in a depression in her torso. Simple and unmistakable, the idea of vigor and joy over her pregnant condition is liberated from the shapes of the stones.
Interest in ``Alice in Wonderland'' is what led Ernest Montenegro to create an outstanding 2-foot-by-4-foot bronze wall work titled, ``The Murder of Number Three.''
An intimate tableau of intrigue with jokerlike figures reacting and participating in a stabbing, Montenegro's skill creates an unusual dynamic. We are witnessing the culmination of hostility; the sharp edges of the slabs and frames convey danger along with the upside-down heads. The viewer's eye sweeps back and forth across the horizontal composition to catch the progression of the idea, and comes to rest on the stunned figure riding a bicycle.