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Staged Readings

A three-artist show offers more unusual senses of place

A digital print from Guillaume Pallat's "Perversion" series.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/11/2009

The organizing theme of Paperwork Gallery's three-person exhibition is spelled out in the ambiguities of the title: Mise-en-scène translates as "putting on stage" and in film criticism typically refers to aspects of visual style, from how directors choose to block shots to the entire visual material that populates the screen. It's a definition and loose term that applies to the ideas behind the works of Lillian Bayley Hoover, Guillaume Pallat, and Audrey Collins Petrich gathered here, even though each artist is visually different. Each, however, creates an artistic reality inspired by an observable reality, even though none traffics in realism, per se.

Of the trio, the three paintings from local artist Hoover are the most familiar, as her work and distinctive approach has appeared in a variety of group shows over the past few years. Hoover favors a vibrant palette and subdued lines, leaving the edges in her paintings soft and diffuse. It's a choice that gives the subject a wisp of the ephemeral, the way soft focus often connotes some distorted time or place in a movie. That Hoover frequently applies this technique to render superficially banal scenes makes her paintings a tad nebulous.

Intentionally so, you imagine: Hoover's imagery often starts as a photograph or a staged setting of toys, which she realistically renders in her sure hand. In "Stop," a white man and woman stand at a presumable sheltered bus stop, with the image of a darker-skinned woman inspecting a bird's cage sitting where an advertising poster is usually found in real life. Snatches of a darkening blue sky come through the background treeline, suggesting the scene is taking place as a summer day slowly turns into night. He's expressionless with his hands in his pockets. She's expressionless with one hand on her purse strap and another on her hip, defiant elbow sticking out. Why the scene feels so fraught with a threat of imminent disruption is hard to say.

Hoover's recent paintings flirt with the façade of realism somewhat like Robert Longo and Jennifer Bartlett, artists who recognized a infelicity in realistic representation and had little use for it. Hoover's works don't feel quite as aggressive, as her ultimate effect feels to create a non-specific unease rather than frontal attack on sensibility. In "Transfixed" and "Barracks," that mood in conveyed almost entirely by cropping. A man's socked feet in "Barracks" stand at attention beside a cot, and the title alone suggests a military setting. A crack of orange-yellow light creeps in from the left, casting his shadow across the nearby cot, and the focus on the feet encourages the brain to imagine what is going on out of the frame from which the gazing set of eyes choose to look away.

Petrich stages outright realities with her two installations. Each one contains three elements--a diorama, a "relic case," and an embroidery badge--that documents some kind of scene. In the "Night Fishing" diorama, an old truck parks beside a small tree-lined pond, the truck's headlights on. The red velvet-lined relic case contains a rod and reel and a plastic American freshwater eel. The badge features a curved eel between two trees against a round sky-blue background.

As a set, the installations nostalgically freeze a moment in time, perhaps a very personal one, to which the artist has created mini-monuments. They feel like natural history exhibits, the relic cases trapping in glass some element of the past to preserve its memory, the badge becoming a keepsake to hang on the wall in remembrance, the diorama the physical setting of the memory. They're both incredibly well achieved and executed, but they feel so quaint that any emotional content gets blunted by the preciousness. They feel like reading only a passage of somebody's diary, a paragraph littered with emotive adjectives and strong feelings, but with no context for the volatile emotions conveyed therein.

Baltimore-based French artist Pallat offers the most insouciantly strong work here. For the seven digital prints in his "Perversion" series exhibited here, he stages nigh pornographic postures with pose-able, somewhat anatomically correct toy dolls and then photographs them against the corporate logos that dot roadsides. The dolls are placed so close to the lens that they're blurry, rather like the imprecise but suggestive imagery of a scrambled pre-digital cable signal, but the mere hint of what's going on is more than enough. Hence, a woman performing fellatio on a man with a Hess station and Coca-cola truck in the background, a veritable orgy in front of Ikea, and something that appears to require a high degree of flexibility in front of a car lot that promises "easy easy credit." They make an obvious point--what's more perverse: the sexual acts or the rampant calls to consumption behind them?--but do so with such cheeky indifference. The sex acts don't really offend, because they can barely be made out--and they involve dolls, feeling like the imaginative play of a curious pubescent child. The background scenes--sharply in focus but otherwise innocuous, and could come from Any Street, USA--would be positively banal without the blurry foreground activity. Separately boring, but jointly specious, Pallat's images' mise-en-scène benefits with deadpan aplomb from their creative mise en place.

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