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Renee Stout

at DePaul University Art Gallery, through May 18

Emily Counts: Halfway Home

at Bucket Rider, through May 18

Renee Stout and Emily Counts both convey a sense of unease, partly because of their work's disturbing content, but mostly because the environments they create blur the boundaries between art and life. Some of Stout's 31 pieces at DePaul University Art Gallery (a smaller version of a touring retrospective organized by the Belger Arts Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City) are grouped into installations inspired by characters she invented, based in part on African-American folklore.

The alcove in which seven works are installed is called "Madame Ching's Parlor"--and Madame Ching, the exhibition catalog tells us, "is loosely based on the Haitian Loa, Erzulie, the goddess of love and lust"--in turn based on a Yoruba goddess. Traveling Root Store #2 (Madame Ching Goes High Tech) (1994) consists of an old suitcase containing roots, herbs, and charms and an ancient portable computer, some of whose keys--labeled "past" and "future"--imply time travel. Another group, "Fatima's Root Store," is based on a fictional healer who works in African and Native American traditions. Fatima's Sign is painted like a traditional commercial sign, with boxes advertising "Money Drawing Talisman" and "Don't Leave Me Powder."

It's hard not to chuckle at Stout's intentionally exaggerated optimistic messages, yet the power of the work comes from her obvious respect for the beliefs underlying them. As a young painter Stout was influenced by photo-realism, and she did trompe l'oeil still lifes while a student at Carnegie Mellon University. The visual flair of Fatima's Sign, which resembles a piece of folk art, may reflect her experience painting thrift store signs. There's an appealing naivete to her lettering, her layout, her use of bright colors; the sincerity of this piece of "advertising" seems anachronistic in light of the cynical calculation of mass-media advertising today.

Born in Kansas in 1958 and raised in Pittsburgh, Stout was impressed as a child by an African "power object" studded with nails and by Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, for its "sense of mystery and melancholy." African art became a big influence only after 1985, when she moved to Washington, D.C. (where she lives today). At that point she began exploring African and African-derived religions, including Haitian voodoo, with its peculiar mixture of Christianity (the religion of her childhood) and African traditions.

Unlike post-Renaissance European paintings, African objects--like Christian icons--are not representations but things meant to exercise power in the world. In Fate Line (1987), stamped envelopes presumably containing letters, a newspaper article about a televangelist (one Stout's grandmother watched), and a doll with pins in it suggest more than a catch-all autobiography: it seems Stout is trying to comprehend and control her life. Even the paintings of hands and a palmistry diagram are less depicted illusions than references to a method of understanding.

Stout offers explicit political commentary in one group of works that includes Carpetbagger Politician Goes for Free Ride on Homeless Woman (1998), a sculpture of a man in a shopping cart cluttered with possessions, mostly food and rags. Sewn onto his clothing is a label reading "Lauch Faircloth," the name of an ultraconservative senator from North Carolina who opposed voting rights for D.C. residents. The man and the objects are mostly dark, making the piece hard to see--and echoing the invisibility of the homeless. At the same time, this three-dimensional sculpture composed of actual objects directly invokes the existence of the poor and ironically, almost surreally, casts Faircloth as one of them.

Soul Saving Center #3 (1999) is the most suggestive and inviting of Stout's works here, combining optimistic sign painting with the intense realism of Carpetbagger Politician. Mixing flat and three-dimensional forms, it resembles the entrance to a storefront church, with an "Open" sign above a rough-hewn wall containing a door and a stoop on the floor below it; "Plese Come In" is crudely lettered on the door, but entry is impossible. Basing her art on faith in people, even if she doesn't wholly believe in everyone's illusions, Stout uses crude hand-drawn signs and ruined surfaces to move away from self-contained aestheticism and show respect for actual human lives.

The overheated pinks and animal sculptures of Emily Counts's "Halfway Home"--separate works that also make up a single installation--suggest a girl's bedroom, and perhaps autobiography. Born in 1976 in Seattle, Counts recalls that her mom, a graphic designer, drew princesses for her and painted murals for her bedroom when she was very young: "I grew up with very sweet baby chicks painted on my wall." But in her show, Counts carries such sweetness far enough to make it a bit creepy.

The checklist shows 21 works, all untitled, but the gallery owner says that one table and the flower sculpture on it, though not on the checklist, are also for sale. Conversely, the pink paper circular cutouts strewn on the floor, which are not for sale, are surely part of the "art." Bucket Rider is an apartment gallery with a sleeping loft and a similarly low-ceilinged area beneath it. Installed mostly in these two spaces, "Halfway Home" feels cramped, which contributes to the disturbing impression of intruding on a child's bedroom. The patterned wallpaper in two shades of pink, the sculptures of pink birds and animal dioramas on the wall, a pink bed with striped bedspread--all make for a sense of overdecoration, a comment not only on the private worlds of girls but on decorating excess in general.

Among the small, relatively flat dioramas, halfway between paintings and sculptures, is one showing cute cats, one of which has stripes that continue onto the wallpaper behind it. In another diorama a giant pink bunny wearing a disturbed look sits in a wallpapered room with a bed on the right--and trees on the left, bringing the bunny's "real world" indoors. In another, a rainbow arches over a dog; chained to a tree, it seems to strain after a large but frightened-looking white bunny. Contrasting the reality of animals with their saccharine representations in popular culture, Counts positions a giant polar bear at the show's entrance, its cotton-candy fur in sharp contrast with the blood on its teeth. A sculpture of a seal rests limply on the striped bedspread, a bloody gash near its throat. The show's great strength is the surprising way Counts's two motifs--the overdone hothouse atmosphere and the animals-as-killers theme--meld, as if a kind of violence were inherent in decorative excess.

Influenced by Egon Schiele and (like Stout) Edward Hopper when young, Counts found herself doing self-portraits when she moved to Chicago after graduating from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1999. A scene with cutout animals made soon after, which drew on little "shoe-box dioramas" she made as a girl, led to her first installation a year ago. But while both she and Stout draw on their own lives, there's an instructive difference between the two artists. Counts works in an implied first-person mode--"This is my imagined room," her show seems to say--while Stout adds other people and social concerns to her stories, leavening the autobiographical element and directly engaging others.

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