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Memory: Fantasy, Escape, Shelter

Lania D'Augostino's "Puppet, not all dreams, memories and moments of déjà vu are desirable (detail)"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/1/2006

Memory: Fantasy, Escape, Shelter

At School 33 Art Center through Feb. 18

Something’s missing in the works on view in School 33’s 26th Annual Juried Exhibition. It’s not the exact same thing for each of 11 artists gathered here, but a sense of something not there pervades the 32 works selected by Tosha Grantham, the assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. Which is not to say that the pieces—ranging from paintings and photography to mixed media and video installations—lack some quality that keeps them from being complete. More that the work’s quiet power arrives once you realize you’re searching for something that isn’t there.

The most literal sense of this effect appears in Stephanie Elaine Robbins’ “Just the Way It Was: Scenes,” a series of six found photographs—aged, colors bleached and distorted—with audio. The photos are mounted inside black frames inside black mat, and when you place the accompanying headphones over your ears, you almost feel as if you’re watching a movie screened for an audience of one. The audio tracks include people talking through imaginary scenes that could have taken place in the found photos—of a living room, kitchen, beach—and it’s only after listening for a bit about relatives and friends and that time that thing happened that you realize that people are absent in these found photos, that the reason you can project these suggested narratives onto them is that there’s nobody there to argue with them. It’s a modestly creepy mood that crawls up the spine at snail’s pace, and you’re not sure toward what end it may be pushing you. (For an even more engulfing feeling of isolation, visit Robbins’ “Beyond the Image” installation, also at the gallery, a pitch-black room with a multichannel sound piece that’s positively unnerving.)

What’s missing in Lania D’Agostino’s paintings is more elusive. These multimedia pieces on paper feature hot colors depicting figures and forms that resemble real-life beings but are slightly off. Her four pieces undoubtedly spring from the same dark place: wide-eyed, agape-mouthed young girls—presumably female, since these otherwise asexual beings are depicted wearing what look like young girls’ gowns—flee and/or are otherwise tormented by a big blue bunny, a red-skinned, tailed devilish imp, and an ovoid egglike presence. D’Agostino’s vocabulary is naive, almost childlike, and yet it exudes a strongly unsettling vibe that is unmistakably not childish. Just why, though, constantly changes: Instinct hints at the devil, extending a hand up underneath one figure’s dress; elsewhere, one of these gown-clad figures appears to be the terror. The work itself doesn’t offer a key to unlock its dreamlike narratives, and you’re left feeling like you’re in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as decorated by Hieronymus Bosch.

Christine Kesler’s multimedia collages abstract their internal world even more drastically. She doesn’t fear the cognitive void of empty-canvas white space, constructing obsessive collage forms and urban-decay layers in regions of her printmaker’s paper tableaux and leaving wide patches feeling nakedly unfinished. That emptiness plays off the busyness of her constructions: Smudged gesso and ink web-work form nebulous shapes in “How Love,” pieces of photos littered into the shapes, and an ethereal white sea floating all around and in the middle of it. They suggest Rauschenbergian accumulation filtered through a Tourette’s brain mechanism, a visual vocabulary looking really hard for the right thing it wants to say and finding everything but the desired bon mot—and the resulting visual logorrhea is a disorienting, woozy thrill.

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