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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Diverse "Archaeology of Wonder" show at Real Art Ways

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Archaeology of Wonder
Through Jan. 4, 2009.

I believe I have noted in the past that, as a reviewer, I have a conflicted relationship with themed shows. When presented with an exhibition like Archaeology of Wonder at Real Art Ways, do I consider the individual works through that frame? Or is it better to ignore the frame and contemplate each on its own? Kristina Newman-Scott, RAW's Director of Visual Arts and the curator of this show, describes her process in her curator's statement. "Archaeology" in this sense is symbolic. (The "wonder" in the show's title refers to the revelatory moments that viewers may experience when confronted with a particularly powerful work of art.) Newman-Scott writes, "Like Freud...who used archaeological excavation as a metaphor for the process of remembering or unearthing life experiences, I wanted to explore the life story of individual works of art."

It is a worthy metaphor around which to organize a show. But it can also be a distraction. Given the multiplicity of ideas and media offered here, trying to consider the works through any one given frame seems a mistake. So I'm not going to.

That said, I'll note that one of the first works that catch the eye as one enters the main gallery are Yuko Suzuki's wood cutouts on the back wall. Suzuki digs into childhood memories for inspiration. Her cutouts, which read almost as wall drawings, reference the contradictions of early childhood—particularly that of young girls—in which innocence and budding worldliness clash. These cutouts capture moments at the nexus of socialization, making for some awkward humor. In "Message," a girl squats on the ground to urinate and defecate while a cat sniffs at her excrement. The "victim" in "Victim" is a one-eyed teddy bear impaled by pencils. Childhood frustration is vented on an inanimate object (yet one imbued with a simulation of life and personality).

Harriet Caldwell
's "Cerebration" looks to the other end of the life cycle. It is a meditation on the functioning of the brain. In particular, Caldwell is concerned with the brain under stress, as with Alzheimer's. This mixed media work incorporates drawing, sculpture and installation, and a very popular material for artists these days, beeswax. Dozens upon dozens of circular vellum panels are hung in layers, held together by a network of threads. Caldwell has drawn in ink and graphite on the vellum, which is also treated with the wax. The drawn imagery is a mix of scientific representations of brain functioning—scans, chemical diagrams—and representations of memories. Memories are associated with faces or, more impressionistically, silhouettes of figures alone or with others. The vellum panels with drawings are clustered around the center of the installation. Panels toward the top and the edges and especially toward the bottom tend to be blank. Caldwell's piece posits consciousness as a complex, multi-layered process: the intersection of biology, chemistry and interconnected humanity. The wrinkling of the vellum from the beeswax treatment also evokes the topography of the brain.

Well, bees are bugs and bugs don't bug Julia Gail Oldham. I'm sure some scientist could correct me if I'm wrong, but I think humans and insects probably share a lot more DNA in common than most of us would think (or perhaps be comfortable with). Oldham's video, "Night Spider," makes the leap from the idea of shared DNA to that of a shared attachment to social experiences and ritual. Oldham has studied bugs in "an attempt to enter the mind of the invertebrate." She videotaped herself at night engaged in a series of motions mimicking invertebrate mating dances and communication rituals. Hands and feet planted in the grass, rocking from side to side. Bent over and repetitively pawing at the ground. Flapping her arms, crooked at the elbows like wings. With its sped-up imagery and added soundtrack, "Night Spider" is compellingly disconcerting. We don't see Oldham's face. Instead, she assumes the identity of a human bug.

For Brian Burkhardt, bugs are also a source of fascination. In the main gallery, we meet the beetles in his triptych "Seven Specimen Surveillance Beetle Painting." Behind the glass within the three wood frames Burkhardt has arranged a rainbow of handmade beetles in the formation of an arch. They may be seven different species—signified through color schemes and markings—but on close inspection each is individuated. As in an entomologist's display, they are stuck to the backing with pins. With their shiny carapaces and wings they are almost jewel-like. The militaristic precision of their organization is appealingly disrupted in the right panel. One of the beetles in the forward row breaks ranks to fly off on its own. In the two works by Chad Curtis (Web site), cows—either as drawings in "Turbines" or porcelain figurines in "Cows"—become symbols of the intersection of the biological and industrial worlds. Approximately 20,000 black licorice mice comprise Tom Bogaert's "Colline au Milles Souris." The floor installation targets Eurocentric notions of "rudderless third-world humanity impulsively acting out ancient ritual blood feuds," according to Bogaert's statement. The piece has a kinetic dynamism, static yet with a palpable sense of upward thrust and motion. The masses of mice are all pointed upward, all rushing over each other to reach the pinnacle. Yet, at the pinnacle, there is no "there" there—it's a dead end.

Remember having to diagram sentences in school? Brian Lund must have really enjoyed that. Lund takes the concept of diagramming to what may be an absurdist extreme. His series of seemingly abstract drawings ("Edit Cuts from the Motion Picture Showgirls") is in actuality a deconstruction of the notorious flop. Lund devised his own system of analysis and contextualization, cross-referenced with index cards. The drawings, executed with color pencils, have their own compositional integrity apart from their inspiration.

Heather Hart queried folks connected to Real Art Ways on books that had particular meaning for them or strong impact on their lives. Each participant named two books and gave some reasons for their choices. Hart knitted yarn cozies for each pair of books. The cozies join and protect the books but also obscure and hide them. For her installation, "Notations of a Hybrid," Hart set the cozied books on two shelves in a little mini-den. On top of a tattered oriental rug, a couple of comfortable chairs are provided for sitting and perusing the books—they are unreadable in the cozies. On the wall, Hart sketched out her own diagram, linking book titles with excerpts and commentary on their importance.

There is a complementarity between the undulations of Lund's abstract diagrams, with their suggestions of exotic dancers, and Sally Moore's wood constructions in the nearby room. Moore's two sculptures suggest miniature architectural dreamscapes, imaginative and inviting yet also fragile and easily susceptible to dissolution. In turn, her delicate fabrications—marked by carved spiral staircases, ladders and splintered collapsing planks—resonate with Javier Piñón's collages in the same room. Piñón, son of Cuban parents and raised in Houston, Texas, is fascinated by the American cowboy myth. His collages—and his striking installation "Daedalus," with its confining rough hewn wood fence and bucking chair framed by large bull horns—depict the cowboy myth as a construct that is, on the one hand, active and powerful while at the same time being constraining and unstable.

Identity—and its sociopolitical ramifications—is at the heart of Simone Leigh's "Queen Bee." Leigh's stunning chandelier-like sculpture hangs from the ceiling in the main gallery, bearing down on viewers with the weight of gender and race oppression. It consists of a large cluster of rounded forms with pointed, nipple-like tips aiming downward. They suggest multiple referents: breasts, bombs, bunches of ripe tropical fruit. A profusion of thin metal spikes—old car antennas—flare outwards, referencing the nail sculptures of Nkisi fetishes as well early Space Age satellite iconography. Leigh's piece is particularly evocative of Newman-Scott's interest in the process, the life story, of artworks. Its existence is shaped, formed, by a confluence of intellectual/ideological/historical factors—Black Liberation thought of the 1960's and 1970's, feminism, Orientalism, empire—as well as by physical and aesthetic considerations, including the use of traditional and contemporary artmaking techniques and materials.

In Elia Alba's (Web site) video "Se Revela, Se Devela," the male figure's face is never seen. Throughout the two-minute loop, he appears to struggle with a wrapping of pinkish cloth around his head. From glimpses of the man's shoulders and upper torsos it is possible to surmise that he is African-American or Latino. Does it matter? The man's motions present a puzzle. Is he engaged in a struggle to unveil himself, to drop the mask? Or is he wrapping himself up, a living mummy, endeavoring to hide from the world the more definitive signifiers of his identity?

Julia Brown's video "American Vernacular" was shot in an historic Maine barn house. As Brown notes in her statement, "the video features a series of scenes of physical interaction in domestic settings, in which one person uses another as an object." Many of these scenes are racially charged, as when a light-skinned woman—Brown herself—sips soup from the cupped palm of a Black man. (We see only his hand and forearm.) The racial dynamic is reversed in a different scene where a Black woman holds the legs of a white woman, seeming to use her to churn butter. The video was inspired by Black Americana objects, which were first manufactured in the late 19th century and "frequently feature representations of Black characters as decorations on household goods." In Brown's video, this dehumanizing kitsch is foregrounded by situations in which one person uses another as a tool in a domestic task without regard to their personhood.

Kitsch also informs Valerie Garlick's "Under My Skin," a 2:42 video loop. Garlick's video is considerably more lighthearted than Brown's. It is one of a series of videos Garlick has made interpreting old love songs in unconventional ways. Playing off an old recording of Cole Porter's "I've Got you Under My Skin," Garlick—lipstick-bright lips in a pout—acts out a pantomime of clinical romantic obsession. Shot using green screen technology and with her image edited in front of a postcard beach scene, Garlick scratches off her "skin," actually a layer of dried Elmer's glue.

And, speaking of archaeology, Kristina Newman-Scott dug up a couple of artists working in a medium that almost seems archaic these days: painting. "Retro kitsch" is one of the elements informing Jennifer Knaus' (Web site) anthropomorphic still lifes. (Others include Art History and "the salad bar at Stop & Shop.") There is a whiff of Surrealist whimsy in her amalgamations of fruits, vegetables and flowers into representations of women's faces and bodies. Like Knaus, Justin McAllister combines strong technique with a quirky conceptualism. McAllister has been depicting ice glaciers as "a character" in his paintings since 2003. In his statement, he writes, "Riffing off nineteenth-century American painting, they act as a predator, literalizing the sublime." And it is, in fact, sublime—if not ridiculous—to see a great wall of ice advancing down High Street in New Haven in McAllister's oil painting "Ground to Bits II." The glacier is bearing down on the building housing the Skull and Bones secret society, which counts among its alumni both Presidents Bush as well as Sen. John Kerry. Of course, it's always a pleasure to see nature put the power elite in its crosshairs. Even more so when depicted with such painterly skill: McAllister has expertly captured the color temperature of frigid afternoon winter light. I dig it.

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