Two for the Show

Amy Toscani sizes up sculpture; Carol Padberg pictures quilting and collage

When sculptor Amy Toscani and mixed-media artist Carol Padberg found out that the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program (MAEP) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts was contemplating a dual show of their work, they both had the same reaction: hesitation, mixed with mild confusion. Neither had met the other prior to submitting their proposals to MAEP, and at first neither was much taken with the other's portfolio. After all, at first sight the two artists' work has little in common, as they are both quick to admit.

"I don't know how they made their choice," says Toscani, of MAEP's jurors. "Based on color, maybe playfulness. Or maybe how childhood issues come up in our work." Padberg concurs: "It's an offbeat way that our work complements each other." In that conclusion, at least, they are of one mind.

Despite differences in their materials and in the size of their pieces, though, the resulting show, Padberg/Toscani, succeeds. There are a couple of possible reasons for this: the similarity of the artists' choice of colors, perhaps, and their shared quirky humor. But the most consistent trait in both artists seems to be a complete involvement in their work that goes beyond what some might consider the ordinary call of artistic duty.

Toscani's sculptures, for instance, are massive constructions--filling up, overtaking the fairly spacious Minnesota Artists Gallery--that make use of unconventional materials and odd visual elements. At times her works are nearly recognizable as known objects: take, say, her eight-foot-high toggle switch, the central element of "Untitled" (1997), and her five-foot-high stuffed nipple, which anchors "Tasty" (1999). In Toscani's hands, however, these articles become twisted, or warped, by their sheer size and manner of construction. In "Tasty," she has carefully sewn together swatches of pink vinyl with thick, coarse thread--giving a kind of Frankensteinesque look to the thing--and has mounted the grotesquely transformed teat onto a bed of old springs that hovers above a smooth, round base of welded TV trays. Such detailing takes tremendous effort--this sculpture in particular, she says, took several months and, as is typical, "a lot of problem-solving" to get just right.

When she isn't spending long evenings and weekends making art at her Northeast Minneapolis studio, the 36-year-old Toscani works as an exhibition fabricator at the Minnesota Science Museum. She's fit and muscular--due in part, no doubt, to hauling around her massive pieces. Her hands are rough-skinned and callused, and she speaks with staccato energy, switching enthusiastically back and forth between topics.

"I was born in 1963," she notes. "I borrow a lot from that time. I have a collection of toys from then, paint-by-number books, juicers, appliances from the postwar period. The design in everything was bulbous and full. I tend to gravitate toward a lush, rich form. I can't completely describe it"--except to say that "everything I do turns into rockets."

Toscani's work is certainly in the realm of pop artists of that era, and her sculptures display an aesthetic similar to that of the painter Philip Guston, whose colors were sugary and reminiscent of the fashions of the 1960s and whose imagery often included contraptions of gears and body parts strangely reconfigured to evoke the confusion and lost innocence of postwar America. Same goes for Toscani's "things," many of which seem to want to operate as workable devices, but ultimately don't. All the better: The ways in which the artist heightens and distorts forms make her sculptures nebulous and able to arouse suspicions about set notions of utility and function.

Carol Padberg, whose wall-hung pictures ring the room, takes an alternative approach. Influenced by the esoteric writings of French feminist Hélène Cixous and by chaos theory, Padberg intends to explore the nuances of motherhood. "Unlike other artists such as Mary Kelly, who did work on parenting, I want to make my work connect with broader issues," she says from her seventh-floor studio in St. Paul's Midway. At 35, Padberg is an energetic, spirited artist and the mother of three children, ranging in age from five years to nine weeks old.

The images she displays in Padberg/Toscani are large photographs of small details from intricate, colorful collages she has made by hand. As a mixed-media artist, Padberg is drawn to lavish and abundantly layered surfaces, here made of thick bits of pasted paper, cloth, and lace, and glazed with fiery paint that's been scratched and inscribed with repetitive phrases--"I want you. I want you...." or "Snap. Snap. Pop." Padberg then softens the frenzy by carefully embroidering patterns over the surface in yarn. These stitchings of blocks, stars, and other figures are borrowed from quilting traditions--she's titled one work "Lucky Sevens" (1999), after a common pattern--and furnish an element of control over the fury charging the work. Finally, she photographs the pieces to relax the chaos even further and alter their scale.

The ultimate result--wild, eye-popping pictures laden with detail, texture, and tension--has much to do with how Padberg views the juxtaposition of parenting and artmaking. "My work is a psychological snapshot of what it's like to have children," she figures. "But that's not all it's about--the autobiography is there, but I also try to talk about the general experience of parenting."

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