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Surgical Steel

With a Raw Heart and a Clinical Eye, an Artist Makes a Distressingly Effective Debut

Lesion Fields: Laura Amussen's rust-covered, slashed-open canvases add insight to injury, but they don't offer any healing.
"One in Nine"

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 2/12/2003

Laura Amussen: Honors Thesis Exhibit

Galerie Françoise E.S.F. through Feb. 21

Sometimes, after the bar nearby empties out, guys crowd around the storefront at Galerie Françoise to look at the breasts. Their mouths twisted into reluctant half smirks, their eyes as big as sandwich plates, like they've never seen nipples before. Through the pocket door to her office, right by the picture window, gallery owner Mary Jo Gordon witnesses it all, and she'll testify to the red-meat stares and beer-bong talk that her current show gets at times. That's partly why she has chosen to install "One in Nine," an arrangement of nine pairs of breasts cast in urethane rubber, in the window on the main thoroughfare of Green Spring Station mall in Lutherville. By making the display as public as possible for these nine busts--eight of them sculptured in translucent suspensions of leaves, seeds, and flower petals, one done in tarry black--the hope is that it might help to separate, at least for a moment, the anatomy from the carnality. But there's no accounting for what soccer dads and junior executives will make of things after a long bout with happy hour.

And it's true that of all the works now on view at Galerie Françoise, "One in Nine" is the only one that really does lend itself to a superficial reading, no matter who you are or what you've been doing before you come upon it. Maybe it's the piece's easy moralizing that makes it come across as derivative and literal. Or maybe it's the shallow politicking at work that gives it that tenor of a public-service announcement. But thankfully, in Laura Amussen's thesis exhibition, the civic tone of its highest-profile piece says as little about the show's success as the banal reactions it gets from passersby. The rest of what's on display at Gordon's gallery, in much more subtle terms than "One in Nine," expounds eloquently on what those drunk guys are really responding to, in their own way: the sensation you get from things you secretly think you shouldn't be looking at.

The whole of the show, by recent Towson University graduate Amussen, draws from themes of illness or injury of one kind or another. In her personal statement, the artist, who abandoned a previous career in occupational therapy to devote her full attention to the studio, talks at length about cancer, disease, and the physiology of our mortalities. But that's not to say there's anything therapeutic about her work. In fact, it's just the opposite. With both a surgical command of her materials and a clinical kind of detachment, Amussen uses the imagery of incisions, eruptions, and wounds to expose her works to us in a way that is at once organic and unwholesome.

Nestling near "One in Nine," for instance, is "Pods," a pair of oblong vessels about the size of your hand that Amussen has fashioned out of natural fiber. In the center of each, the organic material puckers out, revealing small, rich-green balls of moss hiding inside. Once you see them, though, they are difficult to read. They seem to hold the promise of seeds on the verge of release, but in their abscessive secrecy, they also harbor a lumpy, more malignant threat.

Take that as a harbinger of what's to come. If "Pods" makes it hard to tell fertility from latency, then in "Cuts" creation does battle with violation. Divided into three installments, the work consists of 37 canvases of varying sizes, all of them coated so heavily with iron-oxide powder that at first they look like metal plates hung on the walls. Amussen has created a kind of impasto with the rusted dust, forming ridges and declivities over the canvas as if it were skin. This only serves to make her next gesture all the more effective: Each piece has been gashed--sometimes once, sometimes repeatedly--creating lesions that cause the canvas to purse open like freshly cut flesh. There's no pleasure taken in these lacerations, either on her part or on ours, but there's no sense of pain, either, or even shock. With the indifference of a clinician, Amussen has vivisected her work for us, laying it open for us to see through.

If there's any healing at all in Amussen's distressingly effective solo debut, it is in its largest offering, which stoops like a giant in a corner of the gallery. "Seeded," a pile of 104 giant fiber balls, puts perhaps the finest point on just how vague the distinction can be between the cure and the affliction. Each sphere consists of two bowls that Amussen has woven out of coconut fiber and sutured together with sinew. There's a small sense of recovery in seeing the two halves sewn together; but even so, the bowls never quite fit each other, and the stack of them hanging loosely together has the menacing presence of metastasized cells or infectious spores. Unlike "One in Nine," it is the obliqueness that makes "Seeded" so effective and articulate, and its sheer size--nearly as tall as the average observer--requires your attention. In its light-handed mastery, it demands to be taken seriously--even by the blowziest passerby.

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