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Message in the Mess

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Sheila McHugh: Crowns and Hair

at ARC, through February 28

Roxene Rockwell: Boxes

at ARC, through February 28

Jodi Younglove: Field

at ARC, through February 28

By Fred Camper

While Renaissance painters assumed they should use all their artistry to establish the divinity of Christ, and the impressionists sought to make palpable their claim that objects changed in different lights, current artists allow our culture's flood of magazine images and mass-produced objects to flow into their work like ocean tides--as if this glut were a force of nature. The worst art in this vein can seem little different from the imagery that inspires it; more serious artists, struggling for perspective, seek transformation, trying to reshape their materials.

Three artists showing at ARC Gallery, though they take different approaches, all try to make sense of our culture's material excess, which sometimes seems to have overwhelmed nature. Roxene Rockwell collages magazine images onto boxes to produce wildly sensual explosions of color, and Jodi Younglove attains an admirable clarity with an elegant installation of industrial material: thousands of plastic cable ties. Sheila McHugh takes the greatest risk: her multipart room-size installation--"Crowns and Hair," which includes dresses, plates, hairpieces, costume jewelry, cups, and saucers--at times verges on formlessness, suggesting emotions that are out of control. The piece is so messy it reminded me of uncomfortable moments in homes overflowing with the occupants' possessions; being in such a place, so reflective of someone else's life and even body, is almost like being trapped in another's self.

McHugh addresses not only mess, clutter, and excess but the odd, almost preternatural power of ordinary objects. While the cups and saucers sitting on the floor against the walls--some empty and some filled with powders, some clean and others dirty--may make one think of the monotony of daily tasks, they also hint at human presences, perhaps a table set for someone who hasn't shown up. McHugh's whole exhibit multiplies the presence of ordinary objects to almost senseless excess, often presenting them slightly askew, until one has a sense of the material culture of a household--those things typically left to women--gone terribly wrong.

McHugh's checklist includes 11 items, most of which are small-scale installations in themselves. Other Dresses consists of seven dresses on stands, each with a vaguely surreal addition. For one of these, "The Child Rapunzel as Security Guard," McHugh has hung a gold badge on a red velvet child's dress and added, about where the belly button would be, a section of brown braided hair so long it trails on the floor. "She Changed So Fast, She Didn't Have Time to Hide Her Fox-Tails" takes the hair motif to an extreme: several ropes of brown hair emerge from the midsection of a child's dress. Not only the title but the image of hair out of control suggests that humans have an animal nature, the multiple "fox-tails" evoking a child/beast from some obscure fairy tale.

Born in suburban Detroit in 1947, where she was raised, McHugh recalls a childhood interest in household objects. "I remember having a fascination with certain things in my grandmother's basement and attic--old fabrics, old dishes, doilies," she told me. Noticing resemblances between some of them and things she saw used in church, she realized that objects could have multiple uses and meanings. Hospitalized for several years beginning at age two, she was forced early on to rely on her own imagination to pass the time. Later she played dress-up games, put on puppet shows, and eventually took art classes; after a long period of making art only occasionally, she recently returned to art school, earning an MFA from Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, where she lives now.

In her statement, McHugh says that she's "re-doing materials to intimate ambiguous memories of the body, home and altar...[layering] new stories...upon the old." But McHugh's remarks don't explain the sexual explicitness of R e d O Napkin: three cowrie shells set against pale red circles painted on with a finger look powerfully vaginal against the even surface of a napkin, a perception reinforced by a tear in the fabric, with bright red edges, holding a small stone. Other markings--tiny yellow patches stitched to the napkin in blue--are more ambiguous. The piece's enigmatic quality is enhanced by the bottles, some containing foul-looking substances, on a shelf below the napkin: these look like an offering, perhaps to the napkin--but a sad offering indeed.

Though McHugh expresses an interest in "humble" materials in her statement and speaks of a "recycling ethic which sees all as important," she also aims high, mentioning how the altars of cultures from Mexico to India have combined with "childhood memories of an Irish Catholic household and church" to show her "that the sacred is incarnate, housed and dressed in a specific material culture of our daily lives." But her altarlike structures have run vaguely amok, as she piles object upon object with a combination of articulation and obscurity that's at once illuminating and frustrating. One of her 11 pieces, also called Crowns and Hair, consists of seven wall pieces spread over three walls, each with a wooden "crown" inlaid with costume jewelry, shells, and other objects that are both pretty and kitschy. Below each is a shelf piled with hairpieces, but there seems to be too much hair on each shelf for one head. McHugh's combination of excess and kitsch prevents these monuments to childhood games from attaining the sacred; in fact, the piece as a whole effectively conveys failure--the artist, stuck in excess, can't quite make a new religion out of jewels and hair.

One key incident from McHugh's early adulthood perhaps explains the sometimes desolate tone of her work. Enrolling at Wayne State in Detroit after the 1967 riots, which decimated large areas of the city, she began to explore some of the homes that had been abandoned. "People had got up and left, and all their belongings were just there--you'd go into these kind of suspended-animation environments. Every now and then one object would fascinate me; there'd be one thing I'd have to take with me." Every object in this show tells a story, but the fact that McHugh uses objects to tell human stories perhaps reflects these abandoned homes, whose inhabitants had vanished from view. The cups and saucers lining the gallery walls are markers of abandonment, but the theme of desolation is present most strongly in EROS With Broken China and Spices. Placed in the center of the room, this altar begins with a wooden platform; an old wooden shelving unit atop it rises to a veil-covered jeweled crown; broken plates sit on some of the shelves and on the floor on either side of them. This is no mere altar to kitchenware--it's a monument to disaster.

McHugh's work seems to struggle within itself, evoking a skein of messy emotions that threaten to spiral out of control: are we looking at carefully articulated works of art or the kitchen of a family gone mad? As happens so often in art, the element that gives this work its power also limits it.

The piled-up sensual imagery of Roxene Rockwell's collaged boxes conveys some of the same messy sprawl as McHugh's installations, but Rockwell's works are clearer because they're more limited in space. Of the 20 boxes on view, 4 hold heart-shaped constructions; the others have imagery collaged on their surfaces, and an occasional related object within. Born in 1955 in Los Angeles, where she still lives, Rockwell recalls making collages even as a kid; her mother was a designer, and there were always boxes of leftover materials--feathers, greeting cards--around.

Rockwell's cutout fragments are bright, intense, even loud. Many repeat the same kind of image over and over; most tell some sort of story. Suspended on the "back wall" of Body Parts, the Series, #8 is a large plastic ear festooned with several small studs and a large triangular earring. Around the box's edges are black-and-white photographs of ears; on the floor is a pile of Q-tips. The message seems to be "Take care of your ears--wear nice jewelry and keep them clean," but what gives the work its punch is the humor with which this message is delivered, the odd elision of photographs of ears, an ear "sculpture," and actual Q-tips. Struck by the visual contrast between the flat black-and-white ears and the flesh-colored "real" one, the viewer is also reminded by the Q-tips that even the three-dimensional ear isn't real. Body Parts, the Series, #9 tells a similar story, pairing a toothbrush embedded in a canvas mouth with cutout photos over the box's surfaces of very toothy mouths. In this case the mix of color and black-and-white photos tends to intensify the color ones, heightening their sensuality.

These works suggest a culture taken over by consumerist images. Not even the "real" ear is real; ours is a world of simulacra. Rockwell's vibrant boxes are swamped in images, but the inherently limited box form gives the pieces visual focus. In her statement Rockwell calls each box "a self-contained world," which is her aim; for her "the flat surface, canvas or board, should continue all over the wall where it hangs." What her pieces lose in magnitude--they're not nearly as open-ended, or as overwhelming, as McHugh's--they gain in precision and specificity.

At the center of Red Stockings is a magazine photo of two bright red female legs; above them, at the box's top, is draped an actual black lace dress. The legs end in high heels, standing improbably on a collaged mound of grass a bit like a haystack; emerging from it is a black-and-white photo of a hand that appears to be clutching at one of the legs. The humor of this piece goes beyond the obvious feminist comment on male lasciviousness: the legs are so sensual, especially in their contrast with the blue sky behind them, that they almost beg to be grasped. Of course, what the creature with the hand is doing trolling about under the grass is another question, one that gives the piece an almost surreal improbability (Magritte is the one artistic influence Rockwell mentioned to me).

Rockwell offers up her collage fragments as if for consumption, and her awareness of consumer culture is clearest in Society's Demands. The lower half of this box is collaged images of U.S. currency--$1, $10, and $20 bills. Rising from this "landscape" is a barren tree with open hands dangling from its branches; two of them grasp objects--a shoe and a sports utility vehicle--while the rest are empty, clutching at one another or at the air, most pointing down toward the money. A dense background of office buildings completes Rockwell's picture of insatiable, hollow longings. Consumer objects, she seems to say, are never adequate sources of gratification; when we rely on them we can never get enough.

Jodi Younglove takes a very different approach to consumer products in her installation Field. Born in 1973 in the small town of Monroe, Michigan, where she grew up, Younglove writes in her statement of her "love for the repetition" in the rows of fields she knew before moving to Chicago a few years ago. Originally a ceramist, she took graduate classes at the School of the Art Institute that gave her work a more conceptual direction.

Field consists of 35 strands of several hundred plastic cable ties each, hanging from the ceiling in a five-by-seven grid: one can walk through the work as well as around it. The ties are attached at right angles to each other, but the soft plastic resists linearity, creating many twists and turns, and the translucent material gathers light, giving the installation a shimmering luminosity. Wonderfully evocative, the strands are like the spiky bushes of a forest or garden; the way the thin ties point out from a central "spine" also suggests a skeleton.

The work's urban side is suggested partly by the impression it gives of barbed wire. What makes Field vital, however, is its mixture of regular, repeated forms--the cable ties are all basically the same--with uncontrollable, random variation as the ties poke out at various angles, pointing every which way. I suspect a scientist analyzing the reasons for these variations would find the same physical forces that determine random variations in nature. In Younglove's work, material excess is transformed into something else: this light-filled "field" blends city and country associations into a whole that suggests organic growth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Crowns and Hair" by Sheila McHugh; "Red Stockings" by Roxene Rockwell; Detail from "Field" By Jodi Younglove.

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