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Dominance and Subversion

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OBJECT IDEA EVIDENCE

at the Peter Miller Gallery

A group show at a commercial gallery often functions as a sort of calendar filler: it hides the fact that the season's high-voltage solo-exhibition schedule has been played out or contains a few gaps. Such group shows usually offer little to sink one's teeth into. "Object Idea Evidence," at the Peter Miller Gallery, is a welcome exception. In fact, it's one of the best group shows I've seen in a commercial venue in recent years. Laurie Hogin's animal portraits, Jodi Aeling's bronze mirrors, Sharon Gilmore's sculptural assemblages, and Jackie Chang's ceramic-tile wall pieces all take vastly different artistic approaches. Nevertheless, these works show a sympathy and cohesiveness sadly lacking in many group shows.

That cohesiveness is twofold. Each artist critiques a particular cultural area--and though these areas often overlap, the critiques do not seem redundant. Second, these works usually evince a formality that's at once ironic and genuinely elegant.

Laurie Hogin's series of 16 rabbit pictures, for instance, painted in oil on panels, skillfully mimics the animal portraits popular in 18th-century Dutch and Flemish art. Similar in function to their still-life contemporaries, these commissioned portraits were like flattering mirrors meant to reflect their owners' wealth and supposed dominance over nature. Hogin's eloquent technical approach seems to honor the earlier painterly tradition. Her subjects are beautifully drawn and sumptuously painted. Each rabbit is centrally placed in the composition and painted in various patterns and shades of white, gray, orange, and mauve. The seductive backgrounds of deep greens and shadowy browns evoke a forest steeped in mystery.

But certain details of composition and presentation throw a monkey wrench into Hogin's apparent homage. First, the rabbits themselves are often bizarre. In one portrait, the rabbit's coat has the pattern of a Bengal tiger. In another, it stands upright with casual haughtiness. This time its coat resembles the traditional ermine capes of European royalty. Sometimes its abnormally shaped ears or paws look like postnuclear mutations. Often the rabbit watches us with a startlingly human blue eye. Each rabbit seems to bray belligerently, or bares its sharp teeth as if to protest the human threat to its survival.

Hogin's contempt for the moneyed class's exploitation of nature is further underscored by her work's presentation. Each painting is enclosed in a counterfeit gilt frame of deliberately poor quality. A single word printed in peeling gold leaf appears inside each just below the painted animal. When taken together, these words ("truth," "beauty," "honor," "wheat," "lumber," "yen," etc) seem to indicate how Western ideals have been used as smoke screens for avarice. In addition the 16 pictures have been hung close together, in "salon" fashion--a method of display that flatters the owner's vanity by emphasizing his material accumulation rather than the contents of individual works.

Jodi Aeling's bronze pseudo mirrors also take a mocking look at cultural vanity. Most of her eight wall pieces in the "Vanities" series are ovals of blackened glass or obscure black images painted on wax-covered panels; only a couple of them are actual mirrors. So seeing one's reflection is nearly impossible. Moreover, each is enclosed in an ugly ornate bronze frame so roughly cast as to be bumpy and distasteful. She frequently garnishes the tops of the frames with a clumpy knob or cluster of shells or berries, also made of bronze. The frames are coated with a poorly applied turquoise or metallic patina that further trashes the tradition of ornate framing also referred to in Hogin's work. The pieces would be completely unsavory were it not for their individuality: their quirky handmade feeling and baroque combination of forms and materials make them weirdly enticing.

Aeling nicely avoids cliche in her use of mirrors, mostly by not reflecting the viewer. But a work of hers outside this series is the one I find most intriguing. Rapunzel is a huge twisting form of dark wax-covered wood that begins high up on the wall and, like its namesake's hair, cascades to the floor. Incised into the waxy surface are parallel rows of vertical lines simulating individual strands of hair. The hollowed-out oval at the top helps place the piece as a gigantic wig of curling tresses. Aeling puts a humorous spin on the old fairy tale--false hair would never have been a good ladder for the damsel's rescuer--while pointing again to the dichotomy between nature and human vanity.

In contrast to the directly confrontational works of Hogin and Aeling, Sharon Gilmore's sculptural assemblages refer more metaphorically to the difficult relationship between man and nature. In The Delay, a glass case holding some sand and a gold-painted egg rests on a slim pedestal. The egg is being clutched by a bronze claw that could be either human or avian. Shooting out from the top of the case is a metal bar that extends several feet into the air before curling to an end. Midway up this bar is a metal cartridge out of which two long feathers emerge. In this piece nature is held prisoner by a despotic mechanical vulture that guards it jealously. The duality here is fascinating. The greedy claw seems to connote basic animal aggression. Man, represented by the metal bar, has honed this aggression to a terrifying technological perfection rather than triumphing over that primitive urge by exercising intelligence and compassion.

Some of Gilmore's other pieces reveal a penchant for vertical forms like boxes or towers. These are usually constructed of wooden slats that have been painted, scraped, incised, and varnished to produce a burnished earthy glow. This rich surface harmonizes with Hogin's painted woodland backgrounds and Aeling's darkly undulating Rapunzel. It contributes to the subdued refinement of Gilmore's style, which in turn provides the perfect foil to the more overt temperaments of the other two artists.

While Hogin, Aeling, and Gilmore use traditional media to express their views, Jackie Chang uses store-bought ceramic tiles, usually arranged into square grids fixed to a wood base by a thick layer of white grout. She then paints lines and stencils images onto the tile surface and gouges into it deeply. Her monochromatic grids come in primary colors: red, blue, or yellow. Three of these grids include the same image: the painted outline of a carryout oriental-food container that has not yet been folded. White arrows carved into the tile surface around the container's perimeter indicate where to cut to achieve the proper shape. Chang's focus on this image reminds us that there are ideological containers as well, often in the guise of cultural stereotypes. But their function remains the same--to hold something in order to manipulate it.

The gouged arrows, the brightly colored mass-produced tile, and the repeated image of a mass-produced container for ethnic food all work together to express Chang's anger and frustration at the reductive, ultimately dehumanizing effects of cultural pigeonholing. The presence of such works in a commercial gallery is a sharp reminder that the mainstream art world is not innocent of exclusionary bigotry. Just as Aeling uses literal mirrors to reflect cultural vanity, Chang uses figurative ones to expose cultural prejudice. The specificity of her take-out packaging challenges us to assess our own everyday thoughts and actions to determine whether we're as racist as the culture at large.

The show's title, "Object Idea Evidence," is extremely open-ended, and the show itself could easily have been made up of works with only a vague connection. But the works of Hogin, Aeling, Gilmore, and Chang all examine various aspects of cultural dominance, both by reinforcing and playing off each other to produce a peculiar resonance. Putting these artists together shows the kind of thoughtful, sensitive approach to curating that other galleries would do well to observe.

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