YES, THE LATEST No Name Exhibitions show at the Soap Factory, Material/Immaterial, is a fine and challenging exhibit, but isn't the name a bit of a catch-all? Imagine your least-favorite art-history prof at the lectern in a dark auditorium reciting the following conundrum: Isn't the point of all art to tie the ethereal to the physical, the transcendent to the mundane? Well isn't it? Lights on. Class dismissed.
Naming issues aside, Material/Immaterial offers much intriguing work--and only a little immaterial material. It's got anxiety on an intimately small scale, such as Chris Holstad's "It Figures," in which newspaper photos are poked at and tweaked by eraser and graphite until they become tiny melodramas of distortion and deformity. It's got anxiety on a forbiddingly huge scale, such as Abraham Renko's "Deus ex Machina," a 10-foot-tall rectangular steel box adorned with a parachute, clothespins, candles, and salt--all hinting at prophecy, industry, and chicanery.
It's also got the discomforting sculptures of Ann Lynam, in which she traps organic cloth shapes with metallic enclosures, hinting at repression from both within and without. In "Intemperance," a caged field of velvet fingers (they look like fingers, at least) grows toward an escape hatch. In "Serpiginous," densely quilted buds spill out of a metal box. The corners of the exhibit room blister inward, contributing to a moody disquiet--a typically atmospheric Soap Factory touch.
There's a less-oblique parable on limits to be found in Margaret Pelalla-Granlund's video "Rise and Fall," which plays endlessly in a darkened cul-de-sac. The video consists of shot after shot of landing planes, as captured by the artist riding down a highway in a moving car. Most of the cuts are just a few seconds long: Most often, the planes fly over the car or out of range. Still, filming the plane all the way to touchdown doesn't seem to be the point. If anything, Rise and Fall seems to focus more on dedication to a particular mania; if the image of Pelalla-Granlund chasing a jumbo jet with a video camera is funny, it should also prove endearingly familiar to anybody who's ever pursued a goal long after it's proven impossible.
Martin Garhart has a mania about planes, too--although in his case they're of the geometric kind. In his paintings, currently showing at Flanders Contemporary Art, Garhart overlaps pictures with other painted-on elements--frames or taped-on scraps of paper--teasing out the relationship between the actual 2-D picture plane and the 3-D space it represents. The resulting trompes-l'oeil can seem conceptually dry, but they can also lead to moments of alluring disorientation.
In "For a moment in January," three robins stand in front of a landscape painting. The organization of this space would be clear if Garhart were adhering to certain representational rules, but he refuses: Shadows aren't always cast on the right surfaces, and it's completely unclear where one of the robins is perched. Further, while most the landscape is rendered in a grainy sheen that hints at the canvas surface underneath, key details--one robin, a photograph, the waves of the river in the background--are rendered smoothly, creating an engaging, playful confusion of figure and ground.
That relation between these same components proves fertile material for the nine photographers currently featured at Montgomery Glascoe Fine Arts. New takes on the figure in nature abound throughout the gallery's Figure and Landscape Revisited, but the obvious star is Tseng Kwong Chi, whose photographs feature the Maoist Man on vacation. Clothed in his namesake, button-down jacket, and the plain pants of the Chinese peasant, Chi's subject makes an odd tourist amid the splendor of Niagara Falls or Monument Valley: stoic, serious... and not necessarily having fun yet.
And why should he? Maoist Man doesn't belong in the picture--which is the source of these photographs' mystique. If, in Western culture, the photographed landscape is about the individual discovering himself while conquering the wilderness, its racial coding is unmistakable and indelible: It's the white man who has earned enough distance from his savage self to enter the unspoiled wild as a mere visitor. Oh, well--hopefully our tourist can get some good souvenirs along the way. Maybe in Chi's next show, he can photograph the same man sporting some new roadside gear: My indentured ancestors built the railroads, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.
Material/Immaterial runs through November 2 at the Soap Factory; 623-9176. Martin Garhart's work is on exhibit through November 29 at Flanders Contemporary Art; 344-1700. Figure and Landscape Revisited runs through January 10 at Montgomery Glascoe Fine Arts; 338-6702.
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