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Materials, Metaphors, Narratives

Work by Six Contemporary Artists

Saturday, October 4, 2003–Sunday, January 4, 2004

Materials, Metaphors, Narratives describes the work of six contemporary artists united by a common ethos. Petah Coyne, Lesley Dill, Ken Price, Tom Sachs, Jeanne Silverthorne, and Fred Tomaselli are object makers first and foremost. Their choice of materials may vary, but for each of them the creative process is a hands-on proposition involving the empirical construction of objects and images that defy traditional categories of painting, sculpture, photography, and ceramic art. Their work, sometimes provocative, and always thought provoking, is often laced with irony and humor. Metaphor and narrative, subtle subtexts that vary considerably from individual to individual, affirm the work’s idiosyncratic nature while suggesting something more universal. As a group they tend to relegate technology and its hardware to the background, preferring diverse and sundry materials that can be manipulated and shaped by hand.

Petah Coyne mines the expressive potential of encaustic wax bled onto found objects such as silk flowers, paper birds, and religious statuary. There is a strong confessional overtone to these impregnated walls, freestanding objects, and suspended chandeliers, which sing in a sympathetic space. Autobiography colors their formal elegance, like a family quilt embedded with poignant memories. These waxen sentinels function on other levels too, as metaphors for life and death, vulnerability and resilience, and corporality and transcendence.

Lesley Dill deploys thread, paper, photographs, and metals in her delicate reliefs. Dill’s work, like Coyne’s, deals with humane issues of vulnerability and transcendence. From the most monumental photomural to the most diminutive string piece, Dill evokes the ephemeral essence of spirit through form and language. For a recent project, she collected more than 700 stories from members of the Winston-Salem African-American community in North Carolina, who shared with her “their visions, dreams, spiritual moments, and simply inexplicable experiences.” The fruits of the research, published last year by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, continue to fuel Dill’s confession and linguistic sculpture.

Ken Price sculpts clay into concretions whose surfaces vibrate with multiple layers of paint. Price has been sculpting clay in various, unorthodox ways for years, and his quirky objects (some diminutive, some monumental) now constitute a veritable species, related and yet distinct, and each possessing its own skin and personality. Some, animated and mobile, appear to dance and strut. Others are more stoic and majestic, mountainous mounds of elemental matter. These improvised creatures are some of the most imaginative small-scale sculptures in existence today. In them, Price extends the tradition of abstraction with understated humor and fastidious technique.

Tom Sachs describes himself as a bricoleur, a tinkerer, and someone who sees in the detritus of contemporary culture a fertile melting pot of ideas. Recycled tools, weapons, and electronics function as base material, along with corporate logos (Prada, Chanel, Sony, Tiffany), for provocative sculptures. The combination, or collision, of cultural commerce with themes of death and violence distinguishes the work – envision Duchamp’s arcane valise transformed into a compact survival kit stocked with guns, ammunition, bludgeons, gloves, and whatever else it takes to survive in today’s madcap world. Sachs is obsessed with the process of building. This constructive aspect of his studio practice – a meticulous attention to how something is made – is an essential part of the work’s character and significance.

Language and narrative forge the base plane of Jeanne Silverthorne’s sculptural tableaux. For years the artist’s studio provided an arena for ideas that explore notions of creativity and authorship. Using common studio props such as light bulbs, plumbing fixtures, and electrical meters cast in rubber and combined with other casts of sweat glands and muscle bundles, she improvises within a particular space to create her own equivalent to a Rube Goldberg contraption. Silverthorne’s hybrid organisms – metaphors for biological circuitry, emotional states, doubt, and dysfunction – combine humor and skepticism in fascinating ways.

Fred Tomaselli combines painting, college, and other disparate materials (pharmaceutical drugs, cannabis leaves, reproductions of facial details such as eyes, hands, and lips clipped from fashion magazines) to create microcosms of electrifying intensity. His are complex and often disorienting worlds, which can take months to conceive. Some images – analogues for an uneasy equilibrium – pit order against chaos. Others, in their repetitive severity, resemble religious mandalas – unlikely vehicles for meditation. Still others appear entirely entropic. Tomaselli’s quirky constructions reflect his visionary and idiosyncratic worldview of insular universes where utopian pretensions, sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, in the end remain a relative proposition.