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Household Poisons

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Jennifer Krauss: Homing In

at Wood Street Gallery, through November 25

Steven Carrelli

at Wood Street Gallery, through November 25

While both male and female artists deal with home and family life, it's no surprise that women artists more often depict the home as a troubling, intimidating, or entrapping place. Jennifer Krauss, in her six sculptures at Wood Street, presents ordinary household objects in a way that suggests fears, threats, even traumas. One untitled work is an armchair upholstered in a floral fabric with a skirt about ten feet long. (Krauss built a wooden platform for the chair that's concealed by the skirt.) The chair itself is not especially big; that fact, combined with the floral covering, suggests a grandmother--and the chair did once belong to Krauss's grandmother. While a large elevated chair might suggest a throne, this one is both a bit scary and a bit ridiculous. It represents at once childhood fears of the omnipotent adult and a mocking of those fears, given its modest size and bourgeois covering. Yet the fabric itself is a sickly yellow; Krauss called it a "strange, acidy color" and told me that she "liked it because it sort of said 'mother' but with a twist--it was inviting and repelling at the same time."

Krauss, 36, a Chicago resident who grew up in the New York area, studied art at several colleges and universities. She acknowledges the influence of 70s feminist art, work that, she says, often "embraced psychology and personal life and used nonart materials," many of which are culturally associated with women. What separates Krauss's art from much work that's similar is the way she makes apparently simple objects convey suggestive contradictions.

Another chair piece, Pair, also both invites and rebuffs. Krauss started, once again, with furniture from her grandmother, two identical wood-framed chairs with upholstered seats. After stripping them, Krauss "thought the frames were so graceful and beautiful, I made the decision not to reupholster them but to use the frames as they were." She sliced one into pieces and glued and nailed it to the other, so that Pair looks a bit like a double exposure of the same chair: the cushionless seat of one is divided by the seat of the other, which makes the chair uninviting, perhaps impossible to sit on. Pair creates a kind of push-pull effect, its curves inviting sitting though its construction denies that possibility. And because a chair is a kind of mirror of the human body--Krauss notes that we use similar terms, like "arm" and "back," for chair and body parts--Pair also suggests a person whose double identity or divided self is as disturbing as this awkward chair.

Another untitled piece uncovers the threat in a child's "protected" home environment. A tot's chair made of plain wood is set before a block of similar size with the letter A on two faces and an apple on the other two. On top of the block is a broadcast-type microphone on a stand, its cord plugged in at the rear of the block; the microphone points to where a child's mouth would be if she were sitting in the chair. Something really doesn't fit here: the piece suggests that a child who's barely learned to say "apple" is going to speak to a large audience. The soft tans and reds and browns of the block and the chair clash harshly with the hard metallic curves of the microphone, a bitter comment on the way very young children are often asked to perform--to recite, to play an instrument, to display their knowledge.

The sense of drama in many of these pieces, of a possibly traumatic narrative at a crisis point, surely has some of its roots in Krauss's filmgoing youth--she's a self-confessed movie freak. And because she'd like to emulate the accessibility of films, she uses "objects and materials that everybody is familiar with," inviting viewers to "respond with some anecdote from their own personal lives." Two pieces invite direct viewer participation: a cooking pot in one untitled work whose lid can be lifted and the refrigerator of Fridge. Opening its door reveals blue carpet on the bottom, sides papered with baroque blue floral fabric, and in the center, half of a child-size couch: this little room provides the viewer with a surreal surprise. More generally the scene suggests that ordinary household objects are full of possibility: secret spaces, alternative lives, stories within stories. But soon I found myself with a horrible thought, remembering all those old news stories of kids who crawled into abandoned refrigerators and suffocated because the door couldn't be opened from the inside. At that point this everyday object, and the genteel upscale parlor hidden inside it, became not merely stuffy but suffocating; family and home were redrawn as killers.

Steven Carrelli's three pencil drawings, on view with six of his paintings at Wood Street as part of its "Ecstasy" exhibit, also refer to domestic interiors: they show the bare details of a room, a drapery covering a chair or part of a wall--it feels as if someone has just moved out. But while Carrelli hints at a narrative, the home is not the locus of charged meanings; rather it's drained of any obvious human drama. If Krauss's work conjures up the real or imagined past, Carrelli's work creates a mood of meditative stillness. In fact he counts "stillness and silence" as "among the fundamental characteristics of painting."

Hiding Place depicts a sheet or drape on a bare wall hanging on a single hook and covering less than half of a rectangular niche behind. A row of holes is revealed in the rear wall of the niche; the one on the right is filled with an empty hook. These details hint at past activity, but there's no sign of what that activity might have been. Nor does Carrelli aim for a full, three-dimensional modeling; the fabric's folds and shadows barely hint at depth. This spare scene never suggests a theater stage, despite the curtain, or even a space one can imagine walking through. Instead one focuses on its tiny pencil marks and notices that the whitest parts of the fabric and the wall are identical because they're simply the white drawing paper--a kind of blankness underlies this image.

Carrelli's paintings are in a way even sparser despite their color. They don't depict the illusionistic space of a room but instead show leaves and seeds against simple backdrops. Delta shows a brown, triangular leaf against the folds of what appears to be a rumpled bedsheet. The stem seems to rise some distance from the sheet before meeting the fabric at its tip, a divergence that provides the painting's main "drama."

Carrelli, 28, a Chicagoan currently in Italy on a Fulbright, paints in an old medium, egg tempera on board, most often identified with early Renaissance panel painting. He told me he likes its "delicate, luminous color--it's very limpid." The colors don't go "from the relative light to the really deep dark" of oil paint; instead they go "from a really light light to just about a medium dark, which is an interesting value range for me; I think it's ethereal." While he hasn't yet attained the near-miraculous transparency of the greatest panel paintings, Delta's gentle colors admit none of the aggressive physicality common in painting; one feels the work is less about its colors or the single leaf it depicts than about where looking at it might take one. In fact there's a meditative aspect to working with egg tempera: you can't blend colors because, unlike oil, egg tempera dries quickly. It involves, Carrelli says, "a slow process of laying down hundreds or thousands of marks in a day and going over them with finer marks the next day and the next day...a process akin to the kind of looking that I really think about in the paintings."

Self-Portrait, the work I found most moving, is also the clearest expression of this artist's ethos. A small brown maple seed sits in the upper left corner of a sheet of ruled paper, the blue lines painted in carefully, delicately; at the lower right corner is a lone fingerprint. The variations in hue and luminosity of the blue lines and white paper once again suggest that the smallest details are worthy of attention. And this work, together with Carrelli's others, hints at a narrative: the story of a leaf and seed collector who offers his gatherings on a bedsheet, with its suggestions of intimacy, or on lined paper, suggesting language. The maple seed isn't mounted or labeled; it's simply lain near a corner of a sheet of paper, a humble offering, just as the lone sign of human identity is a single thumbprint. Carrelli is clearly an artist who feels that one needn't collect many leaves and seeds to be fulfilled, any more than one needs to paint all of oneself for a self-portrait; both identity and transcendence can be found in a single leaf or seed.

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