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Travels with Marco Polo

By J. Bowers | Posted 10/4/2006

Travels with Marco Polo

At College of Notre Dame’s Gormley Gallery through Oct. 11

Nora Sturges has perfected the art of visual narrative. In Travels With Marco Polo, a selection of 19 paintings--few more than a scant square foot in size--she presents complete, beautifully detailed visions of fanciful, slightly askew villages, forests, deserts, and mountains. Though simple in appearance, and almost shockingly tiny, Sturges’ work is undeniably high concept.

In some particularly tiny works, such as "Traveling in a Direction Between NE and E, One Passes Through a Country Inhabited by Ascetics," you are playfully invited to imagine yourself as the hero of the story that Sturges presents. In this painting, for instance, the Monty Python-esque hermits in question peer out of beehive-like huts amid a lush green forest. And though you’re only looking at a painting in a gallery, there’s a palpable sense of discovery, amusement, and wonder to be found in gazing at their pinhead-sized noses.

In the show’s titular series of works, a benevolent-looking middle-aged man identified as Marco Polo--ever-changing in hairstyle and anachronistic modern-day clothing, but always inexplicably recognizable--joins you on your travels. Initially inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a novel offering fictionalized accounts of Polo’s famous travels, Sturges’ paintings deal deftly and humorously with tourism and xenophobia.

As you marvel at Sturges’ precise brushwork, adept visual puns, and M.C. Escher-esque tangles of adobe buildings, Polo quietly participates in universal tourist rituals. He samples an unfamiliar food, bought from a faceless street vendor, in "Marco Polo Tries Dried Monkey." He massages his tired feet amid purple cacti and wild boar in "Marco Polo Gets a Blister From New Shoes." He reveals his extreme prudishness in "Marco Polo Avoids a Naked Man" by wandering off the blocked path into a patch of briars, wearing shorts, toward a copse of thorny trees covered in beehives. He encounters idol worshippers, friendly villagers, new species of lizards, and blue people. He buys souvenirs. At one point, he’s forced to eat large horror film-worthy moths, cutting the creatures up with a fearsome machete.

And, finally, toward the end--you assume--of Polo’s travels, Sturges offers "Marco Polo, Cold and Wet," which depicts Polo, defeated, in a lonely desert. Is he crying? What happened to him? Is he going to be OK? These feelings, which come so effortlessly after viewing the entire cycle, are nothing less than a testament to the sheer power of Sturges’ deceptively innocent narrative art.

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