Three interlocking rings, the size of hula hoops, hover way above head height. From the lowest point of each ring hangs a stream - black, red, white - of leather strips, some of which drop right down to the floor, where they "break" and go into a busy little tangle.
But immediately, this dry, static construction becomes something liquid. It's as if each ring had been dipped in sticky paint, which was now sliding and dripping down off it in long, viscous strands, and pooling on the ground beneath. Then you do a second double-take. The rings are apparently free-floating, not suspended from anything.
Of course, you guess there must be a thin, supporting upright rod, concealed within each ribbon-flow. But what you see is a physical contradiction: the thing that pours down from them is the thing that raises them up. And though the flow doesn't look powerful enough, you might be reminded of how a spurting showerhead can do a vertical take-off from the bottom of a bath.
Higher Love is the piece that first grabs you in the Eva Rothschild exhibition at the South London Gallery. But around and behind it, in the voluminous single chamber, you can see an array of various pieces - all static, free-standing sculptures - doing their business, waiting their turn, promising different kinds of motion, sensation and illusion. Things wiggling. Things tumbling. Things sprouting. Things going zig-zag and buzz.
Eva Rothschild is a British sculptor in her mid-thirties, and these are all new works. Her work used to be quite easy to label: you could talk about its idiosyncratic subject matter, how it evoked, with a kind of enthusiastic irony, alternative life-styles and alternative spirituality.
In its look and materials, it drew on the visual world of craft-shops and head-shops, New Age emporia, mind-body-spirit festivals and the voodoo/black magic wing of heavy metal. There were echoes of amulets, bangles, wind-chimes and dream-catchers, macrame, moccasin tassels, shrunken heads, star-bursts, bits of broken-glass jewellery, and a general air of psychedelia and improvised teen handicrafts.
This hasn't disappeared. In her recent work, among some factory-made elements, there's still some distinctly lo-fi and DIY stuff - rolls of gaffer tape, papier mâche, plenty of beading, weaving, tasselling and binding. And the show's colour scheme is weird and jangly. Everything is black, white, red or green - the colours of the roulette table, it strikes me, which also have some claim to being the human primaries. If a tribe has only four colour words, that's usually what they are.
But the explicit alt-culture references have been not expelled, but absorbed; submerged into more abstract forms. The language of allusion gives way to the language of sculpture. Where previously the work would have been described with nouns - amulets, and so on - it's now more natural to use adjectives or verbs: blobby, dangly, wiry, bend, tangle, entwine, though still with other things lurking.
There are several variations on that most basic sculptural theme: the upright, the vertical. Objects arise, fall, and drop. Even the standing figure itself appears. Rothschild uses a distinctive, spindly, four-legged stand for a number of her pieces. These tetrapods easily read as legs, with the pieces on them heads. They're like the earliest images that children draw: a head-on-legs.
Mr Messy is near enough precisely that. On its stand sits a densely tangled ball of what looks like black flex - actually short sections of black plastic tube threaded together, occasionally punctuated with bright-red sections. It has the charm of borderline figuration: a head, yes, but only just, coalescing out formlessness. In that respect, of course, it resembles the Roger Hargreaves character of its title. But the red zaps add a feeling of live, buzzing, electric danger; snapping synapses, perhaps.
And if you have an eye for references, you may find some swipes at other people's sculptures. Could Mr Messy be a parody of one of Antony Gormley's wire energy fields? And in The Rock and the Arch, that large, squat, inert, featureless, floor-bound blob, inlaid all over with a crazy paving of black tile fragments - is it a distant, hash-casualty relative of some lump of Henry Moore?
There's another head-on-legs piece, actually called The Inside of Your Head. It's a hollow pâpier-mache form, moulded perhaps around a balloon, then slightly squashed, with large holes cut out of it, white on the outside, and black within. It might be a cartoon of one of Barbara Hepworth's burrowed-through solids. There are also some very linear constructions that seem to be toying with that Fifties school of sculpture, whose angsty, angular metal networks were nicknamed "the geometry of fear".
Whatever, the mode is clearly abstract-playful. Pure form is there, but subliminally possessed by some other, not so pure association. This has become quite a common trope, lately, and it's often done in the spirit of a rather narky practical joke on the high ideals of modern abstract art, which we have now seen through.
Rothschild's work doesn't have that wised-up angle. It has something more like the high spirits of British Pop Art sculpture - Phillip King's for example, with its pleasure in wit and illusionism. The arch of The Rock and the Arch is a long, thin rod of steel, striped red and black, constructed in bent sections, which feels its way, jerkily, tentatively, out through space like a very uncertain graph, sending off short feeler-twigs occasionally, before finally and lightly touching down on the floor, with a perfect anti-climax.
Jokes is another funny one: a vertical cascade of interlocking cube-frames, tumbling at all angles, full of surprising relationships, and holding itself up and together through barely detectable joins. It also has a nice illusion, in the way that, when you are standing still, it loses its three-dimensionality, becoming a flat, diagrammatic drawing in thin air.
But the various jokes aside... well, with Rothschild's work, the point is that you mostly can put them aside, and still find a sculpture that's worth looking at. This is bold enough in itself.
A lot of recent 3D work hasn't been much more than presentation, because the point of the work was its meaning or its technical trick. The artist then had to find some neat and vivid way of displaying it, but how it occupied space was really a matter of indifference. Put it in a glass box. Set it out in a regular, geometrical formation. Suspend it delicately on threads from the ceiling. Spread it all over the floor. Those were some of the favourite solutions. But the sculptural side of the work was only a problem to be solved - with just basic window-dressing skills. It takes some nerve to move beyond that, to shed the stabilisers of subject and trick, to have nothing to fall back on but the mere drama of shape, weight, volume, balance, gravity, strain, connection, fragmentation, texture, substance. You're in open country then, and it's peopled by giants.
The name I have been holding off mentioning in connection with Eva Rothschild is the name of Eva Hesse. For there is, when you start to think about it, perhaps a little too much common ground with the work of that ground-breaking German-American sculptor of the Sixties.
You can call it a homage or whatever, and it is certainly not done in ignorance, but what Rothschild does with dangles and tangles, floppiness and bendiness, the dumb inertia of objects, is not quite an improvement on, or a departure from, what Hesse did. She just makes these things look a bit more contemporary. And then, if you bring in the sculpture of Giacometti (surrealist period), or Picasso, well...
In fact, I feel very positive about this work, simply because it asks for the heavy comparison, even though it often can't withstand it. It plays for the highest stakes. It has visibly embarked on a game in which there are no limits to invention and complexity.
Eva Rothschild: South London Gallery, London SE5 (020-7703 9799); until 4 November; closed Mondays; admission free