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Handled With Care

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Steve Hudson: Heterology

at Peter Miller, through March 16
Pamela Murphy
at Melanee Cooper, through March 23
Michael Dinges: Essential Artifacts, Re-Presenting Everyday Objects
at Aron Packer, through March 16

In our video and Internet age, pictures painted or drawn with care sometimes seem marginalized, even atavistic. Perhaps as a result, finely crafted work often references the culture of an earlier period, when well-made art was precious. Today such work not only comments implicitly on our world, often by combining past and present, but offers complex, frequently contradictory perceptual experiences.

Steve Hudson's ten paintings at Peter Miller depict bulbous nude figures that seem to have grotesquely mutated. Many fuse women with babies and weirdly misplaced male genitals. "The characters in my paintings represent the vestigial remnants of a fictional culture after some great genetic cataclysm," Hudson explains in his statement, yet as he acknowledges, their bold forms and precise lines also recall Renaissance painting and sculpture. At about six by eight feet, the largest is Looking at Talking, which shows two figures side by side, both merged with one or more babies and one apparently a fusion of at least two women. Possessed of a statuesque nobility, they also seem to be decaying: large areas of skin are splotchy. One bleeds entrails, which join a cluster of broken plates on the ground to produce an apocalyptic air.

The viewer bounces between noticing details--the delicacy and near transparency of baby toes, for example--and the overall mix of solidity, luminosity, and chaos. There's a disturbing tension between idealized forms and their apparent dissolution, as if lineaments borrowed from a classic Madonna and Child painting had undergone a dramatic and mysterious transformation. In Tic, a baby's arm emerges from a woman's side and scratches her back, drawing blood. Affection shows a mother holding a child, its flesh transparent while hers is more opaque. Though their conjunction suggests the process of giving birth, the baby's deformed figure and the veins visible in both hint at disease and death.

Hudson, who's 35 and lives in Urbana, told me that in high school he was impressed by Rembrandt, Turner, and Renaissance painting and that his current show is a "continuation" of his very first exhibit at Peter Miller in 1992: "Expulsion" referred to Renaissance depictions of God expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden. "The expulsion was an expulsion from reason, and you're left in this void of understanding," he says. The unresolved contradictions of the present work--its mix of delicacy and roughness, order and decay--eloquently evoke our present dilemma: it's impossible to tell whether human civilization is improving or the world is falling apart.

Pamela Murphy, 41, a Wisconsin native who now lives in Door County, combines two different past cultures in most of her 20 paintings at Melanee Cooper. She copies figures from old snapshots, usually purchased in antique and thrift shops and on eBay, and sets them against backgrounds inspired by Indian miniature paintings from as early as the 15th century. Intrigued by Indian culture while on a trip to Asia in her 20s, she eventually earned an MFA from an art school in Shantiniketan, India, and later studied traditional miniature techniques at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan.

Paradise is engagingly split between its subjects and background: two women casually posing in bathing suits set against finely painted, brightly colored trees and flowers copied from a 17th-century miniature. These worlds colliding allude to two worldviews, our own cultural democracy, in which anyone can be the "star" of an image, and the hieratic art of the distant past. But by adding and then scraping and sanding away layers of paint, Murphy seems to qualify her figures, giving them the look of a photo with the emulsion flaking off. Contrasting with the more modeled and expressive figures is the background's compressed space, with just a hint of depth.

There's a romance to Murphy's "perfect" backgrounds: in Once Upon a Time a woman and girl stand with their backs to us facing a night sky in which small specks of aluminum leaf serve as glittering stars. An older man and a younger woman in Adam and Eve face us before an ornate background of leaves and fruit; clad in bathing suits, they suggest the expulsion from paradise at least as well as Hudson's paintings, given their ordinary features and the decaying look of the paint. As in Indian miniatures and pre-Renaissance European paintings, the shallow spaces of Murphy's backgrounds remove the figures from a specific time and place--a universality at odds with her subjects' quotidian appearance. The two cultures Murphy represents take very different views of the individual: the images from photographs validate individual peculiarities, yet that point is undercut by the backgrounds, which suggest eternity.

In his 13 deceptively simple pencil drawings at Aron Packer, Michael Dinges depicts such objects as a baseball, a hat, or a matchbook at the center of a large sheet of white paper. Though every object is in use today, most were more common a half century ago; this nostalgic series evokes a world where realistic rendering was prized and encounters with physical things rather than mediated images predominated.

Dinges, 43, was born in Chicago and, after attending art school in California, returned here to live. A commercial artist most of his life, he makes his gallery debut with this show, following a year in which he focused on his own work. Referring in his statement to "high technology" and "the phenomenon of rapid change we find ourselves going through," he adds that he tries to "make note of those objects that have served us well."

Inspired by influences as diverse as Edward Hopper, Jenny Holzer (reflected in Dinges's at times overly cute titles), and "the rich, velvety blacks and the hot, hot whites" of film noir, Dinges produces drawings of great intensity and delicacy. In Fuel Cells, three coffee cups sit on a stack of three saucers; Dinges not only renders the reflections in them subtly but manipulates the graphite to suggest the texture of glazed surfaces. Sell Your Time, Not Your Soul shows a single vacuum tube, used in a now archaic amplification technology still prized by audiophiles. Capturing the distortions produced by various curved glass surfaces, Dinges not only encourages the viewer to notice tiny variations in grays but suggests that close scrutiny of any mundane object can reveal a gentle beauty.

"For a long time I felt very insecure about realism and guilty about being able to render realistically," Dinges told me. "I felt that it wasn't a legitimate art." Yet his work gives the lie to the familiar argument that there's no point doing by hand what a photograph can do "better." Dinges's grays and blacks have a texture no photograph could produce. The wood grain of the three clothespins standing on end in V for Victory is arguably more "realistic" than it would be in a photograph, its patterns emphasized the way they might be by a human eye. The rendering of bright reflections, grays, and shadows in the metal of the scissors in Two Against One is so meticulous that the viewer can get lost wandering around a few inches of paper.

Like Hudson and Murphy, Dinges offers work that's at once intellectually provocative and aesthetically fulfilling, values often missing from the one-liner conceptualism that's all too common today.

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