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Dream weavers
Suspended Narratives explores extra dimensions
What if?

Judith Tolnick is the director of the Fine Arts Center galleries at the University of Rhode Island and curator of Suspended Narratives. In the show’s brochure she quotes novelist Norman Mailer from a December 2002 magazine article: "I’ve always been drawn more toward realism than fantasy, because it seems to me that realism is endlessly interesting and finally indeterminable. Realism is a species of fantasy that’s much more integrated and hard-core than fantasy itself, but if you are ready to come to grips with the inevitable slipperiness of most available facts, you come to recognize that realism is not a direct approach to the truth so much as it is the most concentrated form of fantasy." Tolnick was asked to comment on that and other aspects of the show.

Q: Opening your brochure essay, you quote Norman Mailer defining realism as boiled-down fantasy. That notion must have made a strong impression on you.

A: I discovered the piece in the New Yorker as I was thinking about the show, and it seemed to resonate with what I was thinking. Emile Zola, the 19th-century French writer, was basically saying [the same thing]. The fact that these artists, all of them, are close lookers at their models, whatever they may be, and from that delve very swiftly into what Norman Mailer was talking about, just some deeper form of fantasy. You can get five different opinions from people of what happens in an accident — what’s the truth in there, and how do you derive that? Each artist here is very quickly willing to see in their subjects a kind of transformation and have us witness the transformation. And that can include slippage from human into animal world, or human into dream state — which you have in the sculpture.

Where is the borderline between what we see and what we witness and what we imagine? Particularly when it comes to memory. So I think that a lot of these artists navigate this kind of state of witnessing and imagining, in a sort of what-if conjecture.

Q: Were you prompted to this theme more by your own interest or by a trend you saw among contemporary artists?

A: It’s definitely something that emerged out of what I was seeing more and more. There just seemed to be something different happening, including transformation into other realms from figuration — in other words, the animal kingdom, easily slippage into that. That seemed to puzzle me, together with the fact that there is no closure to the narrative that these artists are practicing.

Q: Intentional, purposeful ambiguity — does that play a large part in these works?

A: I would say so, yes. I don’t know if it’s coming from a post-September 11 world — I think we’re still in it, generally speaking. Some of these artists that have been practicing a long time in painting and other media are finding that it’s more true to not have a pat summary in their work. And the play of shadow in certain of the artists is part of that. The notion of casting young girls in warrior poses is another way of managing it. The use of the film noir tableau is a another way.

Q: Anything to add?

A: I’m just really happy with the way that there’s a buoyancy in the room. There isn’t any severe, heavy, claustrophobic sense, by any means, when you enter. At the same time, as others have noticed, there’s something rather unsettling about the feeling that you can get in here. It can make people uncomfortable to encounter this.

— B.R.

Of course we recognize that photographers are capturing moments in time when they document what they see, since "reality" is their raw material. With other visual artists it’s usually a different ball game for us, because unless their work is photo-realistic, we recognize that they are drawing from their imaginations.

But Suspended Narratives asks, what about work that implies we have stepped into a story or a dream — what about that evocative extra dimension? A current show at University of Rhode Island presents nearly two dozen works by six artists. Its paintings, drawings, sculptures and collages are as diverse in emotional resonance as in media.

There’s a high spookiness quotient to this show, the sort that has to do with highly charged subconscious sources rather than that Halloween is approaching. The first thing that might strike you in the Main Gallery is the carnival of colors pulling your attention here and there. When images clamber out of these artists’ depths, few are dressed in shadowy grays.

The gallery layout directs us from left to right, so we’re guided to the eeriest work first. Joan Wildes’s two paintings pay homage to the grotesque landscapes of Bosch and the surreal ones of Magritte, with some late 19th-century fairy fantasy thrown in. That last one, "Parade V," has tiny naked women, some winged, assertively in charge in a world where they ride reined birds. Complementing that feminist realm in a different way, the show has three paintings by Judith Raphael. They present pre-adolescent girls displaying feisty spirit — two are playfully wrestling, one is angrily addressing someone out of frame. In "Pandora (Red Handed)," Raphael beautifully expands the merely naughty into mythic significance. The girl who has just lifted the top of a circular container of red substance is looking defiantly off — at the person who told her not to? Red polka dots in her dress echo the crime, all against a backdrop of birds and military aircraft in flight.

Animal imagery comes up a lot here, as the artists merge identities with, or at least identify with, our planetary colleagues. The most direct reminders are Cynthia Consentino’s sculptures. A wolf-headed girl stands poised to flee — or pounce — next to a stooped rabbit-headed girl. A bonus connection is offered when we go around a partition, where we can see that they are facing another painted clay statue, of a little girl as innocently asleep as if in the bear family’s bed.

The three collages by Michael Oatman impress us with more than their density of imagery. Using an anonymous found watercolor of a collonaded Greco-Roman public building, he has placed found images before it, carefully arranged to provide receding perspective — a polished man’s shoe and a TWA baggage ticket, a cradle and an open lipstick, and so on. Since Oatman collects these objects from magazine ads and the like, rather than reproducing them, their "thingness" remains, for less mediated impact. Titled "Tuesday: from a newspaper article about the large number of personal effects," it’s a disconcerting post-9/11 response.

But when it comes to packing in the images, Barbara Rachko’s four towering, five-feet-high drawings could hardly keep the eye, or the mind, busier. In a corner are some of the models she draws from, such as Mexican papier-mâché figures. More than scale pulls us into these worlds. Not only are the colors fiesta bold, they are done with pastels on fine-grade sandpaper, which gives a dreamy softness to the tableaus she arranges. And then there are the titles, "No Cure for Insomnia," "Answering the Call," which compel us to formulate a story to match them, like garish Rorschach tests. In "Truth Betrayed by Innocence," a seated mustached man is explaining or imploring us; next to him is what could be an executioner’s hood and figurines such as a peasant woman and a dragon. You get the picture.

Deborah Brown paints dogs, sometimes along with their owners, placing them against unnaturally garish but single-color, dimensionless backgrounds. An orange or lime green backdrop takes us aback, grabbing our attention more than would baroque gilt frames. When we first step into the gallery, what faces us is a painting by Brown of some black-and-white mutt looking up expectantly, adoringly, as though we’d just returned from work. This reaching out to us from off the canvas in "Cadbury VII" and inviting us into an unfathomable state of mind strikes the perfect tone for the compelling offerings in Suspended Narratives.

Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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