Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Shear pleasure

Kehler Liddell Gallery
873 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9555
In Sheep's Clothing: Art by Gale Zucker, Laurie Grace & Julie Fraenkel
Through Sept. 28, 2008

In Sheep's Clothing is a wonderful tongue-in-cheek title for a show that brings together three very different artists with complementary sensibilities and subject matter. Of the three, Gale Zucker (Web) offers the most straightforward work, with her photographs from a series on sheep, goat and alpaca farms. Julie Fraenkel and Laurie Grace both use drawing, color, and collage to layer imagery and express emotion.

Grace's works, she told me at the Sept. 7 opening, are about herself. They are symbolic representations of emotional states: fear, grief, happiness. But because she uses animals as her ostensible subjects, it is easy for a viewer to project one's own meaning onto these artworks. Grace layers scanned images of her drawings, collaged paper and gold leaf. On top of this she completes the artworks with daubings of pastels.

A couple of drawings—the same image, essentially, of the faces of two sheep—are differentiated by their varying color schemes. In both, one sheep is nose down while its eyes look directly up at the viewer and the other sheep gazes off into the distance. In the posterized effect she attains, Grace hearkens back to Andy Warhol's celebrity silkscreens. (And, indeed, in recognition of that, they are titled "Two Gold Sheep (Marilyn #2)" and "Two Blue Sheep (Marilyn #1)".) Because of the way it is drawn, with its snout lowered and eyes catching a sneaking peek at the viewer, one of the sheep also looks somewhat wolf-like. It's fitting for this selection of Grace's work that in the visage of this one animal it's possible to read both the threatening glace of the predator and the sheepish deference of the prey.

Predator and prey are upended, also, in Julie Fraenkel's "Granddaughter" and "Red," two takeoffs on "Little Red Riding Hood." In her work, Fraenkel strives for the "physical embodiment of psychological states." She often composes with layers of imagery—collage, drawing, gouache, text. There are scratchings and scribblings akin to the abstract explorations of a child with their first fistful of Crayolas. In these two mixed media on panel creations, Red Riding Hood cradles in her arms the limp body of the wolf, its mouth slack and open, eyes blank. Red Riding Hood is surrounded by blackness in "Red." She's a ghostly figure of the night in her crimson shroud. Shadows ring her face and rim her eyes. Innocence lost. The corpse of the wolf has weight and in her impassive gaze and its death there is the hint of a threat.

The color scheme in "Granddaughter" is altogether more sunny. But "Granddaughter" still courses with emotional turbulence. This wolf is smaller, almost a pup. There is a sense of loss in the way that it rests in her hands. To the left of Red Riding Hood is the image of an old woman—perhaps a drawing, perhaps a collaged photo. She is dressed in black with a white cap covering her curly dark hair. Sitting in a crudely drawn bed with a spindly iron headboard, she clutches at her chest. Storms of cloudy brown colors swirl behind and through Red Riding Hood's head, meteorological disturbances of the world bleeding into emotional tempests. In both works, there is the sense that one does what one needs to do to survive. But a price is paid.

Not all of Fraenkel's offerings in this show are as fraught. There is a series ("Sheep meadow I-IV") of solitary sheep in a field that is positively pastoral. A couple of acrylic paint on panel works—"The Old World (twentythird psalm)" and "The World We Choose"—could be illustrations for a children book with a ram and ewe dressed for a countryside picnic.

Gale Zucker's photographs are a sublime complement to the well-realized roiling tensions of Grace's and Fraenkel's artwork. For the book Shear Spirit: Ten Fiber Farms, Twenty Patterns, and Miles of Yarn, Zucker visited ten farms where sheep, goats and alpacas are raised for their fibers. (The text of the book was authored by Joan Tapper.)

These are images steeped in affection for the animals, the rural and ecologically sustainable lifestyle in which they are raised and the knit products for which their fur provides the fibers. The first set of four large color prints is quite striking. There is a majesty to the sheep in the foreground of "Storm, 13 Miles Wool Ranch," shot in Montana last year and framed by a verdant pasture and the distant blue mountains. Unsurprisingly, given the tactile nature of the materials under consideration, Zucker has a keen eye for textures. In "Sheep in coats," shot in Granby, Connecticut, a group of sheep huddle together, each wearing a large cloth shawl around their torso. Standing on a bed of straw with their dreadlocked, matted wool coats, they look like well-fed but disheveled refugees. A brown angora kid is framed by a huge, round galvanized steel water trough turn on its side in "Angora kid at Kai Ranch." The mottled metallic blue of the trough, with its gathering of shadows around the rim, complements the orangish brown of the animal's soft, thick coat.

This is a finely conceived show that weaves its metaphors well.


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