Abandoning the wistful paintings of children for which she's well known, Alexa Horochowski has taken up sculpture and launched herself onto strange new conceptual seas.

Sometimes literally. Two bronze sailing ships slice through imaginary waves washing over the white terrazzo floors of Burnet Gallery in Minneapolis, where an enticing show of Horochowski's poetic new work runs through July 4. Bronze branches mark the far shores toward which the ships steer. In the distance, a 4-foot white column rises from a rolling platform with sparkling crystals embedded in its waxy skin. Photos of a Greek cave festooned with stalactites and stalagmites are reflected in a mirror on the floor. A photo of a slab of tree bark, crusty and deeply veined, hangs near a delicate web of metal wires. A human skull, bronzed and inevitably ghoulish, grins from a corner. Overhead dangles a bronze chandelier whose guttered candles and dripping wax are preserved in bronze, too.

Called "Cloud Cave," the installation is a fanciful new venture by the internationally celebrated Minnesota artist, who teaches art at St. Cloud State University and exhibits regularly in New York, Miami, Buenos Aires and elsewhere around the world. Horochowski (pronounced Horo-how-ski) previously applied her protean imagination to anime-style murals and paintings of children on the cusp of adulthood, their fairy-tale innocence endangered by dawning sexuality. Here she has unleashed her abundant talent onto an intellectual landscape marked by myth, history and autobiography as filtered through cinema and art. Just as she previously painted the walls to wrap viewers in an all-encompassing environment, here she arranges sculptures and photos on floors, walls and platforms that encircle visitors so they become actors on the stage of her imagination.

Bicultural imagery

Born in the United States to Argentine parents, Horochowski, 45, spent most of her first decade back in Argentina, where her father was director of surgery at a hospital in Patagonia. When political turmoil roiled Argentina, the family returned to the United States and settled in Missouri. After graduating from the University of Missouri, she earned an MFA in photography at the University of Michigan in 1997. (She's also done photography and made videos.)

Something of her bicultural and bilingual life is hinted at in "Cloud Cave," which includes a 2-foot-tall bronze figure of a conquistador as well as miniatures of the sailing ships that brought Spanish explorers to the New World.

"To me, the conquistador is a funny, kitschy thing, like Don Quixote," she said, noting that such figurines are common in Argentina. "He's diminutive, like a carnival barker welcoming audiences to a Theater of Expedition, but I'm interested also in that age of exploration and in the science, mathematics and mapping that were part of that era."

In her historical scenario, the skull is both a memento mori and an emblem of the European conquest that destroyed so many indigenous people and cultures in the Americas. With its irregular edges and lined and furrowed surfaces, the tree-bark photo echoes the shapes and textures of the explorer's early maps. The show's title derives from two airy sculptures, made of gray-painted brass rods, outlining a "Cloud" shape that hangs from the ceiling and a "Rock" beside the conquistador.

While Horochowski has deliberately deployed the sculptures to evoke a sense of place, it is not so much the landscape of her childhood as a fictive space inspired by cinema, myth and literature. The chandelier's drippy candles and the cobwebbed sails of the little ships are the props of gothic romances and ghost stories, while the cave imagery charts unplumbed psychological depths. Strange shifts of scale, from full-size skull and chandelier to miniature boats, add to the dreamlike quality of the experience. A film enthusiast, Horochowski cites Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" and James Whale's "Frankenstein" as influences on her narrative aspirations.

Fun though it is to overinterpret "Cloud Cave," the installation is more than the sum of its intriguing parts. As a playground for the imagination, its props and figures can spark new tales, or sail off to singular adventures of their own.