Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Pretty but not vacant at Artspace

50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Pretty Things: Confronting Sensuousness
Through Aug. 9, 2008

In Artspace's Gallery 1, the artists are serving up the vegetables disguised as eye candy. Painter Grant Lincoln Johnston, who is a contributing curator for the show and wrote an introduction for the show catalog, provided the original impetus for Pretty Things: Confronting Sensuousness. Johnston's question: Does the seductive nature of some media and technique threaten the intellectual nature of contemporary art? Is it frivolous? Curator Joy Pepe, speaking with me at the show's opening, noted that the word "pretty," in its original 14th century sense, meant "wily, astute, crafty." Over time, the meaning of "pretty" was softened to refer more to surface appearance. The question of Pretty Things, Pepe told me, is "how to merge the 'pretty' of artists' materials with the original meaning."

There is a strategy of seduction, smuggling in thought-provoking content with a lushness of presentation. The show offers up, in particular, some exceptional painting work. The imagery and execution by Mia Brownell is always striking. Brownell alludes to the techniques of old masters while investigating issues like the genetic modification of the food supply. With Brownell's paintings, still life raises the question of is it "still life" when we intervene in the genetic code and then ingest the fruits of our Frankensteinian experiments. Her subject matter isn't so much posing a critique as a query: Where is this going?

Brownell's large painting "Double Double" features her recurring motif of clusters of grapes and vines with pears on a black background. The grape clusters and threaded through the composition in imitation of the DNA double helix. With a couple of smaller works, "Still Life with Cock (Freud)" and "Still Life with Cock (Currin)," she playfully but pointedly skewers sexist tropes in the art world (referencing Lucian Freud and John Currin). In these two paintings, Brownell's clusters of grapes and vines are the setting for plucked and provocatively posed roosters (hence the double entendre "cocks" of the titles), splayed almost pornographically.

There is intellectual food to feast on in Brownell's paintings. But the dessert, for me, is the main course. She's an incredible painter (and I love painting as a medium). In "Double Double," Brownell has attended with loving brush caress to each of the hundreds of grapes. Lush—or luscious—doesn't begin to describe them. Just as compelling is the lighting, which seems to come from somewhere low in the center of the background. It gathers in the translucent fruits, caressing their curves.

Caressable curves also characterize the snaking blue forms in Cristi Rinklin's multi-panel painting with wall painting "Somnambulist." In her gallery talk at the opening, Rinklin confessed to some Surrealist influence. Surrealism can be a trap for artists of limited personal vision; successful Surrealist imagery demands both strength of technique and idiosyncratic vision. Fortunately, Rinklin has both.

The twisting blue coils that writhe through her four panels—and billow around the edges as light blue wall silhouettes—remind me of John Bent's (Web) recent installation imagery in Artspace's loos. Somewhat intestinal, or like clouds or smoke that are solidifying, they are lit from underneath by a pinkish glow. The background, painted with airbrush, is a soft-focus miasma of reds and oranges. Completing the composition, partly hidden behind the blue intestines, are monochromatic tinted landscape scenes. These are the sole false note for me. With hard outlines like comic strip speech balloons, this imagery doesn't seem organically integrated into the whole.

The attention to lighting and how it plays on and through different forms and surfaces, evident in Brownell and Rinklin's work, is also central to Benjamin Weiner's "Oracle" (Weiner's Web site). A pink diamond-like gem nestles among a wild profusion of unruly white fur. The tangles of fur are reflected in the gem's facets as almost licks of flame. Burning desire? In turn, the light passing through the stone colors the surrounding tufts of fur in a pinkish hue.

Flanking Rinklin's "Somnambulist" are two mixed media paintings by Phyllis Bramson, "Naughty Little Things" and "Pastoral Pleasures." Bramson's figures are rendered with folk art naivete. Without being overt, they tap into a strain of gleeful, suggestive eroticism. She uses a lot of eye-catching colors and embroiders her canvases with fabrics, glitter and sequins. Stylistically, she borrows from rococo, Orientalist and burlesque imagery. Her two works portray a world overflowing with sensuous and sensual enticements, a kinky playland. In "Pastoral Pleasures," a grinning clown, tumescent with obvious arousal, pushes a buxom, topless showgirl on a swing. A wide-eyed tabby cat clings to one of her ankles. (Hang in there, kitty!) With her other foot, she plays footsie with a showgirl on a swing next to her. This tableau is enacted in a green and yellow pastel Eden blooming with bright flowers.

Kelly Bigelow Becerra also invokes folk art, in her case the samplers of middle America. It's a combination of contemporary technology and tradition with a dose of dysfunctional American Gothic. Bigelow Becerra uses a flatbed scanner to scan all the pictorial elements of her montage "Grandma Whacking Me with a Yellow Hoe." It's a real tour de force (and a little bit tour de farce). She has scanned not only blades of grass, a rose and tree leaves native to her Michigan home but also herself and her grandmother. She manages to combine the flat perspective that's at once the hallmark of folk art and the inevitable result of using a scanner with a sense of depth and distance.

The imagery of orchards and distanceless expanses of flat land convey order, bounty and a benevolent, domesticated Nature. But counterposed to this is the central conflict—the artist in young girl mode cowering as her grandma looms over her, hoe raised high to strike. Within the framework of the traditional, sometimes (often?) looms the threat of oppression.

Elements of collage and confrontation with perceptions of tradition are central to Joyce Kozloff's three works, parts of her "American History" series. Kozloff was one of the founders of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970's. A reaction against Minimalism and an outgrowth of the feminist ferment of the times, the Pattern and Decoration artists sought to make artistic statements with decorative crafts like quilts that had been deemed beneath the notice of the male-dominated High Art establishment.

Using etching, collage, watercolor, pigment prints, acrylicc and colored pencil, Kozloff's densely packed imagery appropriates old prints and maps to offer a chaotic critique of imperialism, domination and resistance. Her concatenation of imagery in "American History: Nuking the Japs" juxtaposes the historical with the futuristic, a case of past myth encountering—or being conquered by—future myth. Although quite different from Bigelow Becerra's work, Kozloff's pieces are well situated next to it. Like "Grandma," these three works employ flattened perspective, collage and traditional imagery to subvert traditional notions.

Grant Lincoln Johnston's four paintings derive their titles from their imagery of cakes (i.e., "Strawberry Cake with Pink Butter Cream"). But these baked confections are accompanied by postcard-like reproductions of art historical masterpieces such as Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère." Johnston uses his painting style—the paint seems almost as if it was applied like frosting—to draw an implicit analogy between mere confection and the appeal of art.
Oliver Herring's "Swan" sits enclosed in a glass case in the center of Gallery 1. Alluding to wood hunting decoys and taxidermy, the piece uses scanned feathers to create a terrific simulation. A counterpoint to Bigelow Becerra's use of digital technology, Herring manages to breathe three-dimensional life into imagery that originated in a two-dimensional array of ones and zeros.

The installations by Cheryl Yun and Jane Rainwater are also part of Pretty Things but are wisely set apart in Gallery 2. Yun's paper work creations are frilly womens' clothing objects—camisole with French lace trim, gathered babydoll with panties. But the patterning on the objects is imagery from strife and war: riots in Haiti, food riots in Argentina, protests by Islamists over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. An heir to Kozloff's Pattern and Decoration movement, Yun 's objects speak on two levels. They are delicate and sexy. But they also are reminders that such objects are created within situations of conflict and oppression.

Jane Rainwater's "The Golden Pawn Shop" is a simulation of a pawnshop window. It is set up in Artspace's window so as to be best viewed from the Crown Street sidewalk. A neon sign mounted on the gilded wire fencing surrounding the installation reads "Gold corrupts yet it is perfect." All the objects on display—some of which are found objects, some were cast by Rainwater and some belonged to her late parents—were gilded by Rainwater. Everything, Rainwater said at the opening, is for sale. (Buyers get an ersatz "pawn ticket" and take possession of the object once the installation stops traveling). There are gilded toy guns, plastic handcuffs, cell phones, a sheriff's badge, an egg carton, musical instruments. It is a simulacrum of a display of mouth-watering desire. In some cases, trash encrusted with a patina of value, a statement about the artificiality of needs and, given the pawnshop context, economic desperation. It is aptly symbolic that all the objects are housed within a cage, itself gilded.

And as I sat on the sidewalk bench outside the window contemplating the installation, an older Cadillac passed by. Its grille gleamed with a gold tint.


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