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Back to the Future

The Contemporary Art Museum emerges as the Triangle's most risk-taking venue for art


You may remember Raleigh's City Gallery of Contemporary Art--or you may not. When City Gallery left its Moore Square location a few years ago, it did such a convincing vanishing act that many people forgot all about it. Local newspapers reported that the gallery had bought a building on the west side and would be renting it while raising money for renovations ... and then nothing. When City Gallery changed its name to the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), few folks outside the gallery's immediate circle of supporters connected the two. CAM did make a few weak stabs at establishing a visible presence--with outdoor sculptures, storefront installations and school projects--at the same time that it was trying to keep a low profile because of a lawsuit brought by its (now former) tenant. Even some of the hopeful felt serious doubts about the gallery's viability.

Those days are over. With the opening of its first true exhibition, the Contemporary Art Museum is re-establishing its position as the Triangle's most risk-taking venue for contemporary art. CAM is still not in its own building, but it has something it has never had before: first-rate curators. Memories of Nature has been organized by the "international curator" Raphaela Platow, who, along with colleague Linda Johnson Dougherty, has the brains, the sensitivity and the ambition to take CAM far beyond the previous achievements of City Gallery. And thanks to a change in gallery policy, the work of North Carolina artists will now be treated with deserved respect, and shown along with the work of artists from around the country and the world. The first installment of Art in Transition features five North Carolina artists and five from Europe. This new attitude will make CAM one of the most important cultural sites in the state.

Memories of Nature has been mounted in a 17,000-square-foot warehouse, donated for the month by Greg Hatem of Empire Properties. "We thought it would be nice to do some exhibitions in unoccupied spaces in Raleigh," says curator Platow. She calls the cavernous utilitarian building with its exposed brick and steel "romantic." Certainly it provides an intriguing contrast with many of the pieces. Brick, steel and wood almost appear more organic than the mediated, stylized "nature" that forms the subject of much of the work. None of these artists have a romantic concept of nature, and although some of them are a little nostalgic, they keep that tendency firmly in check with irony and technology. Many of the pieces use electricity, timers, sensing devices, computers, video, film and/or audio. In fact, the echoing space is cacophonous with noise-making artworks.

This exhibition is fascinating as an exploration of contemporary thought about nature and our relation to it, and the artworks have been carefully chosen to illustrate several points of view. "Nature" has become something frozen into museum dioramas; it has been analyzed and systematized, distanced and abstracted; it has been blurred, stylized and inverted, converted and perverted. One of the smartest works in the show is by the young German collaborators Loris Lasch and Ursula Ponn. Their untitled piece, made with two different-length Super 8 film loops projected simultaneously side by side, is a model of wit and elegant economy. It's "about" inside/outside, the perception of those places, and the shifting boundary between them.

The chaotic wild has been tamed into pattern and decoration. Two artists are showing "wallpaper books": Raleigh's Marty Baird prints her "samples" with images of poison plants and snakes; German Kirsten Johannsen offers soft-focus laminated photos so that you can "decorate your domestic home with this idea of paradise." For Greensboro's George Lorio, natural forms are fodder for archetype and metaphor. Swiss-born Jacqueline Heer, now working in Charlotte, says that "nature is not now synonymous to the natural world. Nature is romanticized; we try to explain the natural world. I'm attempting to leave the romantic idea of nature and abandoning the organic part, crystallizing it into a memory." Her installation of blue-glazed ceramic leaves rotating on a mound of glass fragments manifests this idea. She also makes photographic prints of landscapes that don't exist, by seamlessly layering and combining images.

All these things are very interesting, but the exhibition also includes one work that is genuinely moving. Greek artist Danae Stratou, who represented her country in the last Venice Biennale with an earlier version of this piece, has created an installation called "Breathe." Deceptively simple, it involves an L-shaped bed of rough dirt running right up to a huge video projection screen in a large darkened room. The video projected seems to show the earth itself breathing rhythmically, and an audio track fills the space with the sound of its steady respiration. At first you can barely see the image, but as your eyes adjust to the room's darkness, it becomes clearer and clearer. Your eyes perceive the pocked surface; your feet feel the same texture--you see the earth, and you are on it at the same time. Soon you cannot distinguish your heartbeat or your breath from that of the earth. You are one with primal nature. It is not lost after all. EndBlock

For more information on the exhibition and related artist talks, go to and click on the Art in Transition link.

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