Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Artists ask open questions in three area exhibits

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Photo courtesy of Fraser Gallery
Twenty-five glass compartments hold hundreds of ceramic crosses in Tate’s ‘‘I believe in my art therefore I am alive” – a word play on a question of meaning.
Exhibits now at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring and Fraser Gallery in Bethesda are both founded on existential questions. The title of Tim Tate’s fourth solo show at Fraser asks ‘‘...but what have we gained?” while the premise of Zoë Charlton’s very conceptually-based exhibit at Pyramid focuses on the question ‘‘what is a token?” As with most artistic endeavors of this kind, the questions are open-ended, exploratory rather than demanding the right answer.

Known for his ‘‘content-driven” glass sculpture, Tate is now using a wider range of mixed media, incorporating new elements and ideas. As before, the presentation is flawless. Corollary to the exhibit, a film by Vincent Gaines, ‘‘Hearts of Glass,” documents the labor intensive process each piece requires, demonstrating the exquisite care that goes into them, and the inventiveness of technique that makes Tate’s work so unique. (A screening of the film will accompany the artist’s talk scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday.)

Many of the forms are familiar — hearts and reliquaries. Yet, as Tate writes, ‘‘While the underlying foundations of healing and memory are still a part of the work, these pieces ask universal questions that apply to us all, while allowing each piece to stand strongly on its own.” Therefore, while there is still a great deal of autobiographical reference in these works, particularly in the original narratives etched around the outside of many of the glass works, there is a new openness to viewers’ diverse sensibilities. Without prior knowledge of Tate’s history, one might respond in many different ways to this work.

A piece like ‘‘Heart of Internal Truths” is a case in point. It is a large blown glass heart, with a flame-shaped stopper. The heart is silver plated, using Tate’s newly invented technique that lines the inside of the glass object. A cross is sandblasted on the exterior of the heart, and, wrapped around the lower point, a crown of thorns. The cross is equal-armed, also a plus or positive sign, as in being HIV positive, thus referring to the artist.

Without this knowledge, the work might be seen as a highly effective re-interpretation of Catholic iconography, depending on the viewer’s own history. In this way, the work stands completely on its own, provoking questions, seeking meaning from the observer’s heart and mind.

Many of the works include dice, naturally alluding to fortune and luck. The themes of faith and fortune are intertwined here, in a way that asks rather than answers questions.

Two new works, one titled ‘‘...but what have we gained?” feature a new form: large glass bubbles that protrude from the glass surface. The viewer approaching the work is incorporated into it by the countless fractal reflections that appear in each silver-lined protrusion.

In three pieces, Tate enclosed tiny video screens, speakers and components in his glass reliquary forms. In ‘‘Welcome Home,” a female voice repeats that phrase over and over. The audio-visual experience suggests all kinds of interpretive possibilities, among them an idea of reconciliation. The same notion is suggested in ‘‘Sneaking into Heaven,” a blown glass work containing a little plastic devil climbing a ladder over a pile of crystallized glass. The text on the outside speaks of last-minute reprieves.

Pyramid’s ‘‘Token” is based on linguistic propositions that come from the definition of that word. Reminiscent of 1970s conceptual art exhibits, the basis was an idea, finely articulated in an essay by Cara Ober, fundamental to the installation. One might have wished that Charlton had managed a bit more compelling visual components to carry the conceptual load. Like Tate, the artists involved in this collaborative project were looking for a way to engage the viewer who seeks meaning in contemporary art.

All the works in the show speak of the polyvalence of tokens, raising topical questions about race and gender. The most exciting among them is Nina Buxenbaum’s copy of Boucher’s 1752 ‘‘Blonde Odalisque,” featuring the African-American Charlton as the Rococo mistress in tube socks. This is a strong painting, with a startling image reversal that works visually as a question. Christine Tillman’s ‘‘Runner Up” is similarly ironic, featuring five handmade trophies, ‘‘tokens” of success.

The Heineman-Myers Gallery in Bethesda is hosting the National Society of Arts and Letters Career Awards Competition 2007 for emerging young artists. Limited to works in water media, the grand prize carries a $4,000 award.

Of the six finalists, the most intriguing is Shelly Voorhees, a Rockville resident who made a local debut last year with an environmentally themed multimedia sculpture. Her work here is quite different. Somewhat reminiscent of 19th century spirit photos, Voorhees’ ghostly images of pale women in deeply glowing veils of gem-toned and pastel colors connote themes of memory and passing time. The most complex works in the exhibit, their shifting focus almost seems in motion. Also striking are the realist watercolor portraits by Jennifer Davis, who has a remarkably controlled technique — the very opposite of Voorhees’ suggestive images. Kelly Ulcak’s childlike watercolors provoke questions of subject, while Amy Sorensen’s grotesque cartoon women dare the viewer to ask.