Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Cutting Edge of Warm 'n Fuzzy

The Cutting Edge of Warm ‘n Fuzzy

By Tom Wachunas

The current exhibition by four women artists at Main Hall Gallery on the Kent State University Stark Campus is called, simply, “Cozy.” Curated by Kent Stark Associate Professor of Art Carey McDougall, the show’s title is a pleasant if not ironic invitation to consider subversive twists and transformations of things traditionally associated with, for the most part, feminine roles, memories, and materials.

Julie Deutschman’s untitled hanging menagerie of hand-stitched furry critters in electric colors looks like props from Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. Fun, and harmless, they’re the conceptual lightweights here, and about as close to “cozy” as it gets. Call them a primer for the relatively headier content of other works in the show.

Not so harmless are the fabric constructions by Kortney Niewierski, which are formally somewhat reminiscent, though on a much smaller scale, of Claes Oldenburg’s 1960s soft sculptures of consumer bric-a-brac. Here, Niewierski offers stuffed doll houses, or perhaps windowed toy boxes. But belying the wildly colored, frolicking patterns and frills of their exteriors are contents that look beyond merely innocent playtime. Lurking inside are strange, bulging, even phallic forms. Maybe I’m reading too much into these works, but they might literally be the stuffing of dreams (or nightmares?) wherein comfortable, familiar things cavort, then morph into looming danger. Like smiling clowns turned into fanged demons.

An odd, yet quietly moving spirit of nostalgia is evident in the relief prints and lithographs by Angela Nichols. Their retro look is largely due to their appropriation of stylized imagery from vintage Goodhousekeeping ads and photos. Such icons of suburban domesticity - “Yummy” shows a silhouetted woman triumphantly raising up a fresh-baked pie - were once regarded as potent symbols of correct and noble feminine duty. But rendered here in their palette of faded, pale colors, the images are mute artifacts or fossils from a society whose values and behaviors might now seem mysterious at best or, worse, irrelevant.

The most visually compelling works here – also possessing an air of nostalgia - are by Summer Zickefoose. “The Scenery Series” is a collection of eight vintage handsaws, their blades lovingly encased with various floral print fabrics. With their aged wood handles, some cracked and bleached, they exude a distinctly rural, folk sensibility that makes for an engaging counterpoint to the industrial look of “Saw Tooth Doilies” hanging next to them.

These are four circular saw blades, looking all new and factory shined, mounted with heavy-duty bolts threaded into the gallery wall. As the title indicates, Zickefoose has transformed the blades into very fancy doilies via laser-cut patterns of her hand-drawn designs. The intriguing shadows they cast on the wall play up the fascinating contrast of modern hard labor melded with the proverbial “woman’s touch.” While certainly delicate, this is art with some teeth on it, literally and otherwise.

Photo: “Saw Tooth Doilies” by Summer Zickefoose, on view through December 5 in “Cozy,” an exhibition at Kent State University Main Hall Gallery.

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