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The cows come home

A Carrboro gallery's opening proves worth the wait

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Last year Bleecker Street Studios--the Triangle's most significant installed sculpture, which took almost six years to build--finally opened. With the permanent sculpture, a composite of wood, steel, concrete, bricks, glass--and sweat, lots of sweat--sculptor Ted Bleecker had completed his masterpiece.

Most other large sculptures, like the Albert Paley piece at the Roanoke, Va. airport, are designed by the sculptor, then welded, put together and installed by a team of helpers. In this case, Bleecker, who says he "first threw a pot at the University of California at Northridge, while working on a degree in engineering," was the sole designer, mason, draftsman, carpenter, metallurgist and tile maker.

Though while in progress, there was much grumbling in Carrboro about Bleecker Street Studios--"When will it be done?" "What is it going to be used for?" "Who is that long-haired man?"--people have now seen Bleecker's work come to fruition and realize the contribution he's made to art.

In the studio, two large doors bedecked with handmade tiles open to reveal four unusual clay nudes reclining. Bleecker has left out large chunks of body, but the lines of the works justify this upsetting surgery. Delicate balancing acts arise as stunted legs hang over table edges or stumped necks tilt over the bodies. Bleecker encourages natural cracks by barely overlapping successive slabs, while letting raw edges suggest details. When this technique is used on a sculpture that has a back but no torso, it's the 3-D inversion of a nude painting in which the figure is facing the other way. But, instead of a demure painted nude who leaves us wondering, Bleecker creates, as in "Nude #4," a figure that screams: "I'm pretty, even without a chest."

In his hands--and through his thoughtfully sculpted lines--pottery attains fine art status. These very hands--which hung cherry hanging boards 12 feet high so exhibits could be hung without damaging the walls, laid untold hundreds of bricks for the driveway and hauled even more cinder blocks for the building--are the very same hands that have created a permanent monument that gives artists a place to work and alternative art a gallery to show in.

The gallery, which currently holds seven artists upstairs and a separate 150-square-foot studio space, also greets visitors--who may not even realize why they feel so good--with the strong, positive vibes that surround the building.

Currently featured in Bleecker's downstairs gallery is the work of Susan B. Marlowe, who began painting cows at a young age and intends to paint cows until, well, the cows come home. When Bleecker asked her to show a set of nudes for his December exhibit, a new direction was born: nudes with cow heads or cow ears.

"I've painted cows in hot tubs, cows out on the town and cows in pastoral settings, but this show inspired a combination of my two favorite motifs," says Marlowe.

Four of her paintings include newly invented mythological mutations. In "Goddess," Marlowe places a relaxed female nude with a beautifully painted cow head in the middle of visual chaos created by collaged rice paper and Chinese calligraphy. "My son, Britt, who was living in Taiwan at the time, made 'Sacred Cow' in Chinese calligraphy for this piece," she says.

The cow's head does not seem out of place and in fact reminds me of the women Max Ernst painted with owl masks on. Not for the super detail achieved by Ernst, but for the pleasant jolt that a beautiful body with a beautiful--albeit bovine--head attached brings to the senses. "Goddess" tickles the libido indirectly, in ways that could leave a twinge of naughtiness lingering. This effect helps the viewer get over the hands, which are either too long in the fingers or refer back to cow hooves. A small washer, placed like a third eye on the cow's forehead, adds subtle spirituality.

"Ladies in the Field," however, is much more straightforward. "I completed the watercolor with the cows but wasn't satisfied, so I took the painting to a life drawing workshop and put the nudes onto the cows in one quick session," Marlowe says.

The result is a watercolor that started with yellow cows flowing into warm hillsides under a moving sky and ended with two nudes painted cave-man style onto the cows. Marlowe effectively uses acrylics as watercolors in her reclining nudes. Pure white backgrounds allow parts of the human forms to leak backward. The use of negative space is accentuated by bright colored patches of ground, placing the women in an ethereal zone made by the way the eye brings forth and pushes back the figures.

When not painting, Marlowe is a nurse and case manager for Medicaid patients who covers four counties around Boone, N.C. "I was a starving artist for a couple of years, then got practical with nursing, and now have time to be unreal again, since my four children have grown," she says. "Just to paint would be a dream come true."

Susan Marlowe's Ladies Night Out is on view through Jan. 12 at Bleecker Street Studios and Gallery, 406 E. Main St., Carrboro, 968-3433.

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