One of the important ways that visual artists gain stature and respect is by having their work shown in the most prestigious art museums and galleries. Nothing else provides the same cachet as serious curatorial consideration. An artist may aspire to be seen in the Museum of Modern Art, but if that artist lives in North Carolina, he or she will no doubt first aspire to be shown at the N.C. Museum of Art, and at some of the slightly lesser sites around the state, such as the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA). These institutions play a vital role in developing our visual culture, and increasingly they are fulfilling their responsibility to the state's artists by including these artists in their exhibition schedules. For many years, the NCMA has held the North Carolina Artists Exhibition; recently, North Carolina artists have been shown in a broader context, as in last year's lovely Interiors exhibition. The Contemporary Art Museum put North Carolina artists in an international context in this spring's Memories of Nature. And now, with Homegrown, SECCA has returned whole-heartedly to its early mission of championing the art of our region.
A statewide survey show like the North Carolina Artists Exhibition at NCMA, Homegrown grew rather larger than its SECCA curator, Doug Bohr (himself a fine artist) had originally imagined, and had to be split into two exhibitions. SECCA received nearly 250 entries from artists hoping to be included (the NCMA gets more than twice that number for its triennial NCAE), and after slide reviews and studio visits, chose 34 artists for the two shows. The second installment of Homegrown is currently on view, and like the first, features numerous artists from the Triangle area.
Of these, the standout is Andrea Mai Lekberg, who is showing three sculptural pieces with many of the qualities of painting. For several years, Lekberg has been working with forms and images associated with femininity and female identity, often reveling in the domestic. For the current series, Lekberg makes wooden boxes fitted out like miniature hanging trunks, and arranges in them exquisitely crafted small-scale women's clothing in styles from the 19th century. The first of these pieces, "The Collection," was shown last year at the Duke University Museum of Art. At SECCA, its multiple boxes are arranged in an arc on low pedestals--a surprisingly effective display. All of the garments are variously reflective, in shades and textures of gray, and the whole piece shimmers with muted and opposing emotions. The clothes show off their fineness, but are very covered up--they would completely hide the body. The travel trunks promote the idea of freedom and adventure, but they also speak of being boxed in. The grays are both diffident and dignified. The tiniest details are perfect, but within the boxes the scale can change playfully or frighteningly, as in a carnival funhouse.
While "The Collection" is a very strong and rewarding piece, Lekberg's new work, "Devotion," is far more so. Made entirely in shades of red, it sacrifices none of the subtlety of "The Collection," while multiplying its energy immeasurably. A single Chinese red box, about 30 inches tall and 20 inches deep, has doors and drawers open on both sides, and its exterior is decorated with stickers of Victorian-era images: bouquets, vases of flowers, and pairs of identical women overlapping at the shoulder. The trunk is filled with gorgeous clothes--made for conjoined twins.
These are the clothes of luxury and privilege: made in the best Thai silk, crisp delicate lawn, supple velvet trimmed with fur, and accompanied by perfect slippers and hats. But each garment has two neck openings; four shoes, and two hats sit beneath each one. "Alone" does not exist in this world, nor does "privacy." The appeal of the one is counterbalanced by the horror of the other, a horror that is driven home by the delicate night clothes. "Devotion" looks at both the alluring and the terrifying sides of intimacy in an unusual, and unusually intelligent way.
Across the gallery, Anthony Ulinski's three somber "Reliquaries" balance Lekberg's work. These large, shield-shaped, wall-mounted cabinets have a strict bilateral symmetry offset by the looseness of their painted patterning. The best of the three is the newest, "Reliquary (Alligator)," from 2001. It's dark--black, deep green, indigo, green-gold--and its interior recess with the even more interior drawers hangs in the center like a hidden heart. The reliquaries have a very peaceful feeling, unlike Bonnie Melton's five little paintings. Tight and disturbing, these single image pictures are full of longing, and are totally pissed-off.
Laura Ames Riley's work is disturbing, too, in a much more intellectualized way. Riley is showing four of her "Viewmasters," which are some of her best work. For them she alters appliances or lamps and inserts into them illuminated images of nature. Neither obscure nor pedantic, these Viewmasters punch us in the gut: We've separated ourselves from nature--we'd rather plug in an image of sky and trees than go outside and be part of it.
Outstanding among the non-Triangle artists are George Lorio, from Greensboro, and Hoss Haley of Asheville. Lorio's black-painted carved wood sculptures are even more astonishing than ever. He has been working with vegetative forms, and these almost seem to grow and move when you aren't looking, especially "Snake Leaf." The tri-lobed leaf stands up tall on a very long sprout, which has a small snake draped over it. Seen from the corner of the eye, it definitely wiggles. Haley's mechanical sculpture really does move. Turn a crank and the wings arising from the head of "Daedelus" will flap. "Idea Man" is motorized--every so often a light bulb pops out of his brain, before subsiding again into the dim recesses.
There is a lot of good work in this show--but somehow the exhibition is not exhilarating the way Homegrown ought to be. The show itself is a little too pat--the curatorial connections are maybe a little simplistic, and they are certainly a little too obvious. I can only think that curator Doug Bohr must have been tired after mounting the first part of the show, as in his own work he would never be obvious, or confuse "simplistic" with "simplicity." There are some installation problems as well. The designer apparently tried to echo the theme of container/containment that appeared in many of the artworks, but the result is a chopped-up space where the viewer sometimes feels in danger of tripping. In some areas of the gallery, the lighting is excellent, but in others, you must either squint into the glare or peer into the murk.
These are serious flaws, but not serious enough that they should deter you from seeing the exhibition. All the Triangle artists, and some of their artworks, will be familiar to regular gallery-goers, but the opportunity to see their works among those of a different set of peers, is worth the trip to the Triad.