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Raw Materials

The Whole Gallery Hosts Work That's as Refined as it is Rough

Queen of Denial: Kate Hoffman's "Deprivation of the Senses" denies you everything.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 12/18/2002

A Show of the Senses

Whole Gallery through Jan. 5

If you're wary of contemporary art that seems tossed off in a poor imitation of Pollockian exuberance, and weary of postmodern fare so consumed by conceptual cleverness that it is better described than experienced, you'll be heartened by the current group exhibition at the Whole Gallery. A Show of the Senses features work by eight young artists for whom craft, process, and painstaking production are as important as creative impulse, but whose pieces evince as rigorous an intellectual foundation and as refined an aesthetic sense as you're likely to find in developing artists.

Curator Michele Basta has chosen to display fellow students from the Maryland Institute College of Arts, who, like her, tend to work with natural fibers and organic stuffs--raw materials that require taming, shaping, and processing before they can be worked into art. "I chose artists that had a certain level of professionalism and a strong tactile sense," says Basta, who was witness to the pieces as they were being produced in MICA studios. "I love art that makes you want to touch it."

Indeed, as she walks through the vast loft interior of the Whole Gallery (where City Paper contributing photographer Uli Loskot sometimes arranges shows), Basta can't stop handling the art: stroking fabrics, teasing the feathers from a mask, lifting up sculpture from display stands to examine its underside. "You're really not supposed to touch the stuff," Basta says, smiling. "I like the tension in that, though. You want to touch, but you're not allowed. That in itself creates a sort of drama."

As might be expected in a show focusing on fiber art, many of the artists in the show play in the intersection of art and apparel. Lucas Cowan's pieces articulate his interest in "military chasers," a subculture of gay men who seduce straight soldiers. Military chasers are not uniform fetishists; they are attracted, rather, to the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and ethics of honor common to servicemen. "The Potato Peeler Sisters" is a pair of hanging dresses, peasant smocks cut from old Army linens with a property of us army stamp visible along their sides. The dresses, stitched into impeccably clean lines, are stiffened flat with potato starch and hung over a floor display of sequined potatoes that spell out the word "property." Accompanying the starched twins is a Navy sailor's outfit knit from chenille, a super-delicate rayon that clings to every curve of the mannequin wearing it.

Though the sexual connotations are understated, the sensuousness is undeniable. Cowan doesn't go for the obvious shock value available in the juxtaposition of military and homosexual imagery. Rather, he pays homage to those attributes of servicemen that military chasers admire--order, restraint, domestication--by imbuing his own art with that same seriousness of effort and control over material.

Across the gallery floor, Gina Denton's "Worn Document" is a garment sewn from the muslin pages of an old book. The shellacked pages, which look like waxy slices of cheese, cover the torso mannequin like a tunic made from plate armor. The pages appear to come from a book of anatomy or medicine and are annotated with the artist's barely decipherable scrawls. This new take on the familiar themes of body and clothing (and everything else) as text is extended in Denton's companion piece, "Sleeve Attachments for Insecurity," a series of embroidered canvas sleeves, lined with silk, that are designed to be tied onto the artist's body. They look like Victorian corsets, or soft torture devices. Sewn onto the sleeves are plush organ-shaped pouches that contain canvas scrolls upon which Denton has machine-stitched diary excerpts of personal bodily functions and dietary habits.

Another thread woven through the show is the connecting theme of storytelling. In one of the more provocative pieces, Marlo Sell's "Letters From Tek, Written in Prison," is a compilation of love letters and poems written to the artist from an acquaintance, "Tek," after he's been convicted of attempted armed robbery. The handwritten letters, inked in a feminine, almost cartoonish hand, are displayed in order of their receipt, and express mounting obsession with their recipient. Like any stalker worth his salt, Tek suspects his "lover" is repressing her true feelings: "Your letter does not move me/Although the words are strong/You say you will not love me/ But ah, the letter's long." Indeed, Sell's compilation of the correspondence shows evidence of her obsession with the letters, if not with the person writing them. The jacket of the book is composed of Tek's envelopes, bound together with the sort of fixation to detail that sheds a little light on why this creep's got such an untiring crush.

Michelle Basta's own contribution to the show is all about storytelling. Like Sell, Basta's got a book, though her text is about the pages themselves, not what's written on them. Basta's piece is part of a multimedia installation in progress centering around a mythological world of her own creation. At the center of this installation are vegetables, or, more accurately, vegetable paper. "Turning vegetables into something else is a metaphor for alchemy in the story," says Basta.

Truly, the process of transforming beets, carrots, turnips, and radishes into parchment is somewhat magical. Basta's book, composed of this paper, has the brittle texture and ochre hue of ancient scrolls. But most enchanting are the wall-mounted masks of Basta's mythical creatures. Also sculpted from vegetable paper, these luminous creations have the intricate delicacy of huge flowers. The process of creating vegetable paper is part of Basta's display. There's a slide show of her making the paper from sliced tubers and a wall of mounted blotter paper, used in the production of the paper, that retains the smell of the organic material. Whatever shape her mythical world ends up taking, Basta understands that process, in art as in anything else--and especially when done this well--is itself worthy of appreciation.

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