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Well Coiled

Journeying Inside Asa Osborne's Enigmatic Imagery

WOMB WITH A VIEW: Asa Osborne's untitled paper cutout.

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 3/5/2008

Asa Osborne's installation at the College of Notre Dame's Gormley Gallery makes you wonder about one particular manifestation of contemporary art that seems to be repeating itself. It's those oft-seen visualizations of cartoon organics, the tidily gloppy, decorative innards rendered as Colorforms with scalloped edges and long, playful drips and oozes. The (generally young) practitioners of this form often render it in cheerful crayon color, and several rely on silhouette. The scenery often suggests a place deep inside the body and principally generates from a microcosmic viewpoint with macrocosmic repercussions.

Parentally speaking, in Western culture that is, this modern primordial ooze could have mischievously leaked from the teardrop welling in the eye of one of Roy Lichtenstein's blown-up Benday-dot heroines. More lately, perhaps, it radiated out from the surrogate gun splats of a paintball warrior. It transmits humor but also some form of loss, for it has always seeped with gravity from images of stigmata, grimly trickling through subjects such as Goya's depictions of brutality and Francis Bacon's slaughterhouse souls.

Perhaps it first crossed the body's threshold through Judy Chicago and Georgia O'Keefe's vaginated art, to seek sanctuary within human tissue and assume a vernacular feminist setting, as it began to do in, say, Inka Essenhigh's earlier paintings or, regionally, in Maggie Michaels' or Heidi Trepanier's sublime work, before evolving elsewhere into flat color planes to poeticize, sanitize, cauterize, even transcend some of the visceral content in its domain. However this protean motif arrived, there is a distinct movement regarding the internal body as both landscape and interior portrait. Artist and Lungfish guitarist Asa Osborne independently describes it through his own method of articulation in his installation Corporeal Corridor.

One thing is certain: Osborne's small untitled paper cutouts are codified meditations on a passageway that you mentally enter. They could be something other than a body cavity--maybe a worm hole to some other place in the universe, or a cave that leads to the fiery center of the earth--but with their little fissures, fat globules, and villilike crevasses, as well as their tendency toward red and fleshy inner space, they mostly suggest metaphors for the biological.

Through his very carefully executed paper cutout compositions, and particularly in light of his musician background, Osborne's work nudges out the notion that this type of art might be essentially Tantric in nature. In Eastern spirituality, the concept of Tantra is body affirmative, meaning that the various internal functions of existence, such as eating, defecation, sex, etc., are understood as connecting the philosophy's conscious practitioners to a sense of unity with the universe. Body channels and fluids are understood as transformative. The word "tantra" means continuity, involving both hearing and sight in its practices of self-involution.

This state of body consciousness as a universal is perhaps an underlying phenomenon in art such as Osborne's, even if as an unconscious act--although certainly better through awareness. In Osborne's intestinal coil imagery, you might imagine--because he is definitely not telling--Kundalini representations.

Dormant spiritual energy with no beginning and no end, Kundalini is a channel of life force at the base of the other organs. In both motion and rest it snakes through the body carrying the juices of life. This is what seems to be going on in Osborne's cutouts, as well as in other artists' work of this nature. The fact that it is shared imagery among contemporary artists is something to take comfort in. It transforms the violence and sacrifice of Christianity's--as well as Bacon's--descriptions of carnage into something vital and sacred. This manner of art extracts the feminist body sensibility from the margins of art to give it primacy. And it invokes a stylish spirituality or reverence for life--that is kept safe from our culture's tendency to break or chip away at things--through its comic-book hipness.

Directly across the hall from his cutouts, gallery director Geoff Delanoy has installed the Osborne's Slat Paintings. They are constructed from horizontally stacked lattice strips to reveal some of the saw patterns in their narrow edges. The palette on these works comes from winter hues--greens, golds, grays--painted on the rough-cut nested boards to push them into textural abstract landscapes. Osborne presents them in thick gray boxes that jut out from the wall at different depths. Even though they have a visual vibration that makes them a little otherworldly, they convey as a much more rational polarity of the artist's two directions. The gallery's oppositional arrangement also introduces a narrative between the two bodies of art, slightly impacting their meaning. The Slat Paintings start to look as if they are rubbernecking, trying to strain to read the paper cutouts across the way. It changes their horizontal landscape format into some sort of scanner, collecting data from the opposing images. It's very dichotomous, this show, but for all its seeming repetition--two symptomatic concepts with a series of minor alterations--it offers unexpected revelations.

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