Bricolage and Brio
By Tom Wachunas
EXHIBITION: About Face, featuring artists Sharon Dulabaum and Laurie Fife Harbert, at The Little Art Gallery, THROUGH DECEMBER 2. Located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312 firstname.lastname@example.org
In the lexicon of art categorization, the work of Laurie Fife Harbert is a good example of the “outsider” aesthetic. Formally untrained in the traditional sense, she has nonetheless unquestioningly surrendered to the proverbial Muse, as she points out in her statement for this show. She also lets us know that many of her works embody “inside jokes” or narratives. “The inspiration for a piece,” she writes, “often known to me and only a few others, is often subtly alluded to in the titles of my work, like a spy speaking in a code known only to a select few, secretly offered up in plain sight.” Hmmm. Sounds suspiciously like the modus operandi of numerous postmodern artists.
Actually, I’m not sure the allusions in her titles are all that subtle, as their connections to what we in fact see are often fairly obvious. Cocoa the Kid, for example, like many of her pieces, is an anthropomorphic rendering of found objects, this one using a Hershey’s Cocoa can for the abdomen. And Angel Amphora is just that – a small, graceful jar that looks like an angel ornament you might see in a curio cabinet. From that perspective, these pieces are all a perfectly appropriate fit for the Little Art Gallery’s built-in glass display cases.
Harbert’s brand of bricolage (assemblage of found or collected materials on hand) is elegantly ornamental and well crafted, even if infused with a sometimes overly-precious domesticity. This is certainly not to say that her decorations are totally without depth.
Among the more engaging objects, both in title and content, is Xander has No Father. It’s also one of Harbert’s smallest pieces and, unfortunately, woefully ill-placed at the bottom of the case. Still, for those limber enough to hunker down for a better view, the work exudes a whimsical if not surreal intrigue (not unlike a few others in this collection) reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages from the mid-twentieth century. Even though Harbert doesn’t regularly employ Cornell’s shadow box format, his own thoughts on the matter seem nonetheless relevant to the overall character of Harbert’s work: “Shadow boxes become poetic theaters or settings wherein are metamorphosed the element of a childhood pastime.”
The title of this show - Face to Face - is no doubt largely derived from the paintings by Sharon Dulabaum. Her collection here of 24 works is a somewhat uneven gathering of portraits (animal and human) that would have been well-served by some judicious editing. Dulabaum is a multi-faceted painter – a polystylist – who has truly mastered some pictorial formats and languages while seeming to greatly struggle with others.
In some ways it’s hard to believe that the same artist who gives us the wondrously gorgeous oils, Beth and Angel (a cat lounging in mesmerizing rays of light), can also offer such unresolved experiments as her colored pencil and watercolor portraits, Youth, and Young Girl. In works like these two, her passion for visual textures, saturated, rich color, and layered mark-making is clear. But these elements don’t so much meld seamlessly as they collide and clutter, making the picture plane a bit too soupy and unfocused. Such spontaneous, visual affectations are relatively more successful in her watercolor and pencil portrait, Margarita Girl.
There’s also a delightful spirit of spontaneity at work in her uncomplicated oil painting, Snow Buddies – a bird’s-eye-view of two dogs on long leashes, walking in the snow. Quiet yet lively, like her best works in this collection, and for that matter like many of Harbert’s assemblages, it’s a charming and earnest homage to simple pleasures and moments.
PHOTOS: (Top) Margarita Girl by Sharon Dulabaum / Presto the Sad Clown by Laurie Fife Harbert