Jacob Bronowski’s documentary series “The Ascent of Man”—the focus of Tommy Hartung’s first show at On Stellar Rays, in 2009—culminates in Crick and Watson’s discovery of the secret of life. And one could argue that man’s undoing originates in the kind of high-society floundering embodied by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—the subject of Hartung’s second show at the gallery, titled “Anna.” Combining sculpture, photography and a 20-minute stop-motion video (all works 2011), Hartung’s exhibition painted a bleak picture of human desire, vulnerability and pathos.

The installation of the show was one of the smartest things about it, establishing a tension between secrecy and discovery. Two adjoined freestanding walls that obscured all but one of the pieces confronted viewers as they entered the gallery, as did the heavy scent of incense. To the right, a small, clear plastic coupe perched atop a Plexiglas pedestal was scratched and dirtied by salt used in the making of the accompanying video. Appropriately titled Vehicle, the sculpture beckoned the viewer into the space like the elusive white rabbit leading Alice into the underworld.

Turning around, one discovered the installation Epilogue, nestled between the freestanding walls, which joined to form a forced perspective. Exhibiting all of the carnality of Paul McCarthy’s work—with none of its hotdog-and-ketchup goofiness—Epilogue features seven crudely hand-built, painted plaster figures (usually just the head and torso or less) propped on metal c-stands. A mess of salt, cigarette butts, glass shards and burnt sticks of incense litters the floor beneath them, while the figures’ piglike eyes stare vacantly. A stunned-looking man with a hole in his head submissively bends forward; another, with half a face, has a lightbulb pull-chain hanging from his mouth; a third, facing away from the viewer, seems oblivious to the votive candles melted into his hollowed-out back. All of the figures are lightly sprinkled with gold glitter, giving them the oblique ethereality of corpses found bathed in sunlight.

Finally the viewer arrived at Anna, a video montage displayed on a monitor on the gallery’s back wall. Here, the decrepit sculptures in Epilogue fumble and jerk through their film debut, often in the same space in which they appear in the gallery. In some shots, ominous clips from a 1930 Soviet Socialist Realist film—a horse anxiously bobbing its head, a man running over the crest of a hill—play behind them. Uncomfortable close-ups showing water, smoke and fog blown through the figures’ orifices are intercut with other odd shots—of a dismembered hand seeking the contours of the plastic coupe, for example, and poured salt effacing the image of a baby who appears dead. All effects, as well as the ambient sound track, were created by Hartung without post-production manipulation.

Unlike Tolstoy’s realist masterpiece, Hartung’s “Anna” never moralized or even cohered around a particular narrative. The show instead gained its strength by luring us into the basement of the human mind, where we struggle to distinguish our march toward death from our impulse to continue living.

Photo: Tommy Hartung: Anna, 2011, video, approx. 20 minutes; at On Stellar Rays