Arts » Arts Feature

Small Pleasures

Taking a break from the blockbusters with some local gallery shows

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As The News & Observer recently pointed out when it named N.C. Museum of Art Director Larry Wheeler as Tar Heel of the Year, the visual arts are burgeoning in Triangle area. You would have to have been dead to have missed the uproar at the NCMA in the past year, and the various nonprofit and commercial galleries have been busy, too, with their own ambitious agendas. It's great to go to a big exhibition--but sometimes we forget the quieter pleasures of the small show. You may not think it worth the trip to drive across the Triangle for one of these exhibitions, but slip into one of them near you for an easy dose of visual gratification.

In Raleigh you can see something I can pretty much guarantee you'll never have come across before: breathing sculpture. Artspace is showing two works by Seattle artist and art professor Daniel F. Loewenstein that he calls Vacuum Ovipositors. Made of patchworked plastic shopping bags heat-sealed together, the balloon-like forms sprawl across the gallery floor. Each attaches to an old vacuum cleaner set to blow rather than suck, inflating the sculptures. They seem to breathe, their semi-flaccid bodies rising and falling slightly. Then periodically, the vacuums roar into action, inflating the pieces fully--so full that you think they may burst. They rise, lifting and lolling in their swollen condition before the machines cut off and they relax again, like satisfied lovers.

Loewenstein says in an artist's statement that he is "fascinated by the relationships between things physical and tactile, and things internal, psychological and cerebral." His work, he says, "is a quirky look at the everyday and is inexorably bound to the processing of experience. It is based on the notion that life is as rich, if not richer, than fiction. ...

Once the audience is slightly disoriented, the subject becomes apparent--psychological states and the reconciliation of the external world to internal life (or the universe)." That all sounds very well, but the really nice thing about these Ovipositors is that when you are with them, you can simply experience them. Their zephyr breaths blow philosophy to a distance, and allow you, if you sit with them a while, to wallow in their bizarre sensuality and take respite from thought in form and space. This may not be extremely Important Art, but I enjoyed my sojourn with the Ovipositors as much as anything I have seen lately.

If you are on the opposite side of the Triangle and find yourself strolling in Hillsborough, stop in at Bradiggins, the gallery on the corner of Churton and King Streets, across from the old courthouse. Bradiggins shows a number of local artists--painters, textile artists, ceramists, jewelers--but currently featured is Ghanaian painter Benjamin Offei-Nyako, who goes by the simpler name, BON.

BON spent some months in Durham last year on a Fulbright fellowship, and taught at NCCU. One of his students there was Anna Jones, an adventurous woman who had taken early retirement from a large corporation, and when BON went home, she agreed to try to represent his art here. With the Bradiggins show she hopes to begin introducing the work to a wider audience. BON was trained in Ghana-- where he now teaches in Kumasi's University of Science and Technology--and in Bulgaria, and his style is a Europeanized academic one. But his subject matter is the people and land of his home, and some of the works are very fine. I particularly liked Sweet Bananas, which shows a powerfully built woman balancing a basket of bananas on her head. Her solid vertical stance fills the image. Behind her streaks a low horizon of distant trees and a big, big sky. Not every one of BON's paintings is this strong, but they are well worth a look.

A slightly larger exhibition has opened in the Bivins Building gallery of the Duke Institute of the Arts (only open weekdays 9-5). Steve Clarke has a career in UNC's Institute of Government, but he has a longstanding involvement with the arts, especially performance. In 1995, Clarke began making photographs, starting by taking two short courses with Ruth Pinnell at the ArtsCenter and going on to learn by trial and error how to photograph dancers. He has shown in some group exhibitions, but this is his first solo show.

For Dancers: Body & Soul he collaborated with several dancers to create the photographs--that is, these are not shot during performances or rehearsals, but the movements were created to be seized by the camera. Dance is all change and motion, so what we experience here is not like dance, though it comes from it. Many of these images show dancers in mid-air,

which is wonderful: You get some of the exhilaration of the dance along with the time to study an image that in actuality passed in a fraction of a second.

"Emily & Alex No. 3" is especially nice in this regard. Her back is to us, her beautiful muscled back, her magnificent buttocks, her mass of dark hair. Her left thigh is raised parallel to the floor and her body blocks most of his, but their legs are in counterpoint. Her elegantly positioned left foot points down, crossing in front of his extended right leg. His left foot approaches the floor behind her right leg, which is kicked up and back. We glimpse his intense eye through his spread fingers reaching toward her face, hidden from us by her thick cloud of hair. There is an almost illicit pleasure in capturing such a lovely moment out of the flow, to have and to look at outside of time.

There are several unusually interesting multiple exposure images in the exhibition. In "Emily and Herself, No. 1," numerous superimposed images of a single dancer fill the stage of the picture like an entire troupe. Of this type here, this piece is the most successful in communicating the kaleidoscopic motion of dance. "Night Flyers (Tara)" shows a very longhaired woman in three leaps, her pale hair floating out against the black background. There's dramatic sidelighting, and the forms are very nice on the page, almost calligraphic, but the picture is slightly marred by one small area being out of focus when all else is sharp.

Clarke still has some things to learn about lighting, and he is not a master printer yet, but his eye for the moment is well-developed, as is his sense of form and composition. Even better, he catches and communicates the thrill of the dance. Look for his work in the future to further illuminate the body's beauty and the marvels it is capable of. EndBlock

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