Many ways to figure a problem 

Artists are not necessarily good teachers. Often something happens to artists when they decide they need to instruct us on politics: They become boring and rigid, like a conspiracy theorist or a protester who missed the bus to the rally. The worst kind of "issue" art happens when an artist has an idea finalized, neatly tied up into a social position ready for transference to our presumably blank minds.

"Confrontational Clay: The Artist as Social Critic," the current exhibit at the University of Central Florida Art Gallery, contains a few pieces of this kind of simplified ideology. What's impressive, though, is the number of works that question and prod -- in which a restless artist sends a viewer down an unpaved path. The participants in this exhibit actually seem happy with the possibility that someone might lose track, wander onto the wayside and find something fascinating there on the side of the road.

More than two dozen works make up "Confrontational Clay," which was curated by a New York University professor and will travel to five other U.S. cities after leaving UCF. The exhibit is a little overwhelming, but it's also incredibly appealing: Figures emerge from walls, bright-red skeletal demons loom, post-apocalyptic heads scream silently, kitschy figurines playfully beckon. This is not the kind of gallery experience that lends itself to structured viewing. Every few steps reveal a surprise that will make you alter your course.

Some expected themes get addressed in smart ways. Arthur Gonzalez takes on genetic engineering with "A Bit of DNA," in which the upper half of a sad, disfigured person looks askance at the room from its perch on the wall. Wesley Anderegg's angry "Jail Man" can be seen as either unjustly imprisoned or a man self-imprisoned by his own rage.

Raymon Elozua and Micheline Gingras' "A Head in the Game: Hear" uses terra cotta, steel, broken glass and wires to depict a wrecked gas-masklike head filled with small, pained figures. This industrial ravage, however, isn't nearly as fascinating as Janis Mars Wun-derlich's two meditations on motherhood, "Birthing: She Screams" and "Teething." Wunderlich mingles the horrible (craggy face, exposed rib cage) with both the mundane (Mary Jane shoes, baby on lap) and the strange (babies that look like aliens). In "Teething," a pear-shaped infant gnaws on a doll -- which, on second glance, looks remarkably like a mother. Some might find Wunderlich's works disturbing, but I thought they were pretty damn funny. I mean, isn't a baby an awful lot like an alien?

Not everything here is distortion and struggle. For polish and wit, try Les Lawrence, who decorates his delicate, chaotic teapots with dollar-bill imagery. Especially stunning is Lee Stoliar's man and woman caught in a fluid, tangled embrace, their burnt-orange bodies wedged within a tight black box, displaying sex's simultaneous concentration and self-loss.

The hyperrealism of Joseph Seigenthaler's fat, wrinkled, wall-mounted "Man With Switch" is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks, with the effect heightened by the man's enigmatic expression, which hovers between wincing and cruelty.

While many of the show's pieces are provocative, none is mean-spirited or offensive. The breadth makes it impossible to sum up "Confrontational Clay," but the quality is across-the-board high. The UCF gallery's hours aren't convenient (it's closed most weekends), but this exhibit is worth the effort, offering a chance to be challenged and amused -- often in unforeseen ways.

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