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The Missing

Group Show of Narrative Works Only Reveals Parts of Their Stories

(From top) Nicole Barrick's "Sensory Vibrations"; An untitled drawing by Josh Weiss.

By Kate Noonan | Posted 1/14/2009

Storytellers at Paperwork Gallery

Through Jan. 23 at Paperwork Gallery

Every artwork has a story, but some are easier to decipher than others. In Paperwork Gallery's current exhibition, Storytellers, curators Cara Ober (an occasional City Paper contributor), Dana Reifler, and Rudy Shepherd have assembled a group of works by six regional artists that examine the ways in which the narrative reveals itself. The six artists exhibited hail from Baltimore (Jeffrey Kent and Rachel Bone), New York (Saya Woolfalk and Ridley Howard), and Philadelphia (Josh Weiss and Nicole Barrick), but in many of the works there is little attempt to provide a concrete sense of place. In fact, what is left out is just as important as what is included, and the relative ambiguity of the often highly detailed images makes Storytellers a fascinating show. The artists may relate their tale, but we never grasp the whole story.

Josh Weiss presents a series of intricate line drawings that read both as impossible still lives and post-apocalyptic prophecy. In these modern-day vanitas, Weiss renders symbols of contemporary society and classical relics, which intermingle amid scenes of total destruction: a Smart Car dangles precariously from a crane; a classical bust is overwhelmed by accumulating ferns. Although Weiss provides a clearly delineated view of a foreboding future, he offers little, if any, insight into the rest of the story, making these delicate drawings rife with a dual sense of anxiety and curiosity.

Where Weiss' drawings are visions of a collective future, Ridley Howard's graphite on paper works are somber observations of individual introspection. Each drawing captures a solitary subject in a moment of inward thought. In "Sun," a woman leans back to feel the warmth of the sun on her face, but reveals a slightly melancholy expression. Against a white background, a faint, vague landscape in the distance, you're left to ponder who she is, where she has been, and what her story may be.

Saya Woolfalk (who collaborated with Rachel Lears) documents the relics of a future society in her 30-minute video, "Ethnography of No Place," which, incidentally, is not related to last year's Laura Amussen-curated exhibition of the same name at Goucher College. In "Ethnography," Woolfalk relays an anthropological report of a sophisticated utopian society from the future. The citizens of this society, which is known simply as No Place, are a hybrid species, neither human nor plant and live a peaceful existence first imagined by the artist as part of a therapeutic exercise. The video is comprised of chapters that explore the various facets of life and culture in No Place, from mating rituals, to communication, to a funeral ceremony, in brightly colored live-action scenes and papermation vignettes. Although the video's narrator, Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian, speaks with cool detachment, it is clear that the painstakingly constructed costumes, sets, and relics were born out of a deep sense of longing for No Place. Yet as elaborately constructed as No Place and its inhabitants are, and as real as Woolfalk makes it feel, it remains a mystery, slightly outside the realm of definition.

Jeffrey Kent's large oil on canvas, "Justify My Thug," incorporates pop-culture imagery, in this instance an Old West scene, with backward text scrawled across the canvas. A man in a suit and red tie chases after a snarling outlaw, perhaps both a reference to the television Westerns that Kent holds partially responsible for breeding a culture of violence, and to the "cowboy" antics of the most recent political administration. Here, Kent works in a fairly restricted palette of burnt umbers and browns, which removes his usual street-art associations and holds the subject matter back from becoming a cartoon. The translucent, muddy wash over the canvas shrouds the subject: You can see the outlines of a scene, but cannot make out enough detail to make any conclusions.

Bone offers a quiet balance to Kent's dramatic canvas. Her two elegant mixed-media drawings on paper, "Airplane" and "The Cut," capture intimate, dreamlike scenes set against stark white backgrounds. Here, Bone removes the context of time and place, offering only a peek into the actions occurring. You're privy to a part of the whole, but ultimately the choice is yours to decide what happens next.

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