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Moira Marti Geoffrion

at Sonia Zaks, through November 14

Through the Portal: Fragments of Time

at Gallery E.G.G., through December 5

By Fred Camper

While many "primitive" art traditions meld human forms with nature's, Moira Marti Geoffrion in her 18 new sculptures at Sonia Zaks establishes a precise balance of equals between body parts and branches, roots, and soil. In her dreams of decay, bodies may seem to be returning to nature, but Geoffrion never merges them completely--she even underlines their differences. In Groundings: Earthen Clasp two actual roots end in a pair of clasped hands--but the eye is not fooled, contemplating differences as well as noting the connection. Creating compositions that are both centripetal and centrifugal, coming together and flying apart at once, Geoffrion mixes order and chaos.

Geoffrion, born in Maryland in 1944, was formerly a painter. Most of her sculptures hang on the wall, and most suggest rectangles, sometimes violated by branches reaching into the surrounding space. The best of her smaller pieces--mixing wood and hand-shaped Forton, a malleable plastic--concentrate one's attention on both similarities and contradictions. One of the more powerful larger works--some others seem to lack focus--is the cast bronze Wingspan: Fused Within the Earth. Suggesting a diptych, it has two halves, each with a pair of clasped hands at the outer edge pointing away from the center--a kind of all-encompassing gesture outward. At the same time the roots beginning at the wrists lead the eye toward the center of the piece, which is empty. This is no accident: even one-piece works, like Groundings: Earthen Clasp, lack a single focus--below the pointing fingers thick roots outline an empty area whose rough, concave surface and recessed center recall the soil between roots. This more natural-looking space intersects and undercuts the clasped hands and their implication of human intentionality.

Despite its optimistic title, Life Emerging suggests decay. A large, relatively flat rectangle at the left including a small nipple resembles a male breast while a more globular form with a larger nipple seems a female one. Rough branches form a strong contrast with the smooth skin, and at the upper right a flower sprouts from a hand cut off at the wrist: the life emerging here seems to come from a corpse.

Roots or flowers extending beyond the borders of Geoffrion's semirectangular sculptures suggest the unruliness of natural life and our inability to contain or preserve it. As a girl, the artist lived on a farm: "I have photographs of myself sitting on the ground drawing the animals. I liked to draw trees in winter and spring when they didn't have all the leaves on them--I liked the shapes the branches made." In her early 20s, she went into the Peace Corps with her husband; stationed in Sierra Leone, she discovered African art. On a later stay in Malawi, Geoffrion came across a burial site eroded by a river; looking into the graves, she saw what seemed "a bone structure with some cloth reclining there." Later she watched her mother die of cancer, a "decaying process" she observed over a year and a half. She also mentions as influences Native American archaeological sites and the light of the southwest--she now lives in Tucson--which has affected the patinas she applies to her sculptures, layered to produce subtly resonant colors.

In Geoffrion's work nature mostly forms a disordered contrast to human flesh--no less beautiful for that, the natural forms still suggest decay. The smooth, round breast shape in Ancient Arboreal Association has the feel of idealized perfection when compared with the rough, soillike surface beside it. The lower part of Testing One's Roots is an anatomically precise foot, and the shape above it momentarily looks like a hand: four "fingers" point upward. But it's actually a circular piece of wood with separate strands near the top. It's Geoffrion's achievement to remind us of the limitations of our deeply ingrained bias toward anthropomorphizing natural forms: she sees the profound differences between human flesh and bark or soil. At the same time she places human forms in the larger context of the world that nurtures us and to which our flesh returns.

In the entranceway of the Gallery E.G.G. exhibition "Through the Portal: Fragments of Time"--11 paintings and works on paper by Jean Poklop and 14 sculptures and installations by Barbara Schnell--three Poklop works are accompanied by Schnell's bundles of branches, the leaves and pine cones beneath them adding a mild fragrance. This combination makes a point reminiscent of Geoffrion's: the branches echo Poklop's complex, busy surfaces, whether the painting is Danse Macabre, combining curling branches and a red dress, or Newspaper Rock, with scraps of Chicago newspapers showing through painted white pictographlike forms, the two symbolic layers of humanity creating a dense surface.

Like Geoffrion, Poklop is working in a familiar area; her depiction of trees harboring human faces in The Ancestors recalls Max Ernst. But unlike Geoffrion, Poklop often combines human and natural forms too readily, flattening them into an oversimplified unity; her handling of paint also tends to blend unlike forms. And some viewers may not accept aspects of her spiritualism--in her statement Poklop writes of "nature spirits who inhabit the rocks, waters, and plants." But she does evoke undeniable truths. Nightway shows a dress form with branches and twigs and bits of lacy fabric surrounding it standing outdoors before the wooden frame of a building, intertwining human ruins with natural growth and decay.

Geoffrion's and Poklop's combinations of natural and human forms make a broader statement as well. Though neither artist creates collages, their melding of diverse forms has a collagelike look, suggesting that the artist's role is to combine existing things in new ways to create new realities. Some Western artists in this century have even mirrored the noninterventionist approach of those Chinese artists and scholars who displayed unaltered rocks as art. The best work of Barbara Schnell--born in Iowa in 1948 and, like Poklop, a resident of a Chicago suburb--has a meditative quality that comes from the rare ability to simply let things be: these mixed-media assemblages reflect her search for what she calls in her statement "a calmness in my life."

Letting things be is no small achievement. We naturally think associatively, seeing hands in branches and faces in the moon. And some of Schnell's larger, less successful mixed-media works partake of such thinking. My Metamorphosis, with its dense clutter of buttons and black lace and grass and feathers, is in some ways similar to Poklop's Nightway. Schnell's smaller works are more focused, less busy, thereby gaining intensity and a kind of purity. 09024095-1: Serenity Formula No. 3.5 includes two glass containers; the longer tube holds emerald chips, the other vial dried berries. A more chaotic-looking fibrous material is the matrix for the two tubes, setting them off and focusing one's attention on them, as if concentrating their energy.

In Schnell's best pieces the objects she collects, often on walks, are both organized enough to be coherent and sufficiently separate from one another to allow the viewer to see their uniqueness, almost as if one had found them oneself. In 09024095:-2:010 PreColumbian a large, heavy-looking blade--a pre-Columbian tool, Schnell says--sits alongside a thinner glass vial, while a nail is mounted horizontally beneath them. One might see this as a simple arrangement of horizontal and vertical shapes, but the three objects are too different from one another to admit easy formal comparisons. Further disrupting the linear order are a round bead at the upper left and some partially shredded papyrus behind the objects. Schnell's arrangement denies the work any overarching organization; instead it's as if each object existed in a different world--a concept almost diametrically opposed to Geoffrion's and Poklop's associative connections.

A nail, a ring, a stone chip, and rusted metal are the four disparate elements that make up the pleasing arrangement of 092494: Ancient Artifacts and Environs #1. The objects' juxtaposition seems to emphasize their differences, and there's only one slight point of overlap, between the metal and the chipped stone. I took Schnell's point to be that the most ordinary objects are worth looking at in themselves, without the mind leaping to organize or interpret them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Life Emerging" by Moira Marti Geoffrion; "My Metamorphosis" by Barbara Schnell; "Nightway" by Jean Poklup.

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