Speak Planely 

Despite perplexing curator-speak, 1708's show delivers on beauty.

click to enlarge art27_art_1708_100.jpg

Plane Text" is packed with art — 37 works by 14 artists, filling 1708 Gallery to capacity. This show offers a little of everything: painting, sculpture, video and mixed-media works that, according to the curators, "explore the tension between planes while considering the role of text as a form and form as a text." While that curatorial statement provided by N. Elizabeth Schlatter and Erling Sjovold only serves to confuse matters, the majority of the works in "Plane Text" are thought-provoking, jarring or just beautiful.

Martha MacLeish's wall-mounted sculptural forms present a delicate shifting landscape from a bird's-eye view. Their play of abstraction, combined with size and material, gives them an architectural quality, allowing the works to flow from scale model to life-size structure. Sharing this shifting quality of scale are Ben Pranger's wood sculptures. In "Walk the Talk" Pranger has fixed small pegs into wooden planks to spell out in Braille 851 synonyms of the words walk and talk. The viewer looking down on a city of pegs towers over the piece, which sits on the floor. The use of Braille distorts the scale, though, reminding us of our sense of touch and reducing the work to a more human size.

Despite the curators' claims that the work in "Plane Text" is prone to hybridization and not easily definable, the influence of painting and color on many of the artists is obvious. Suzanna Fields' works "Transitional Living" and "Mutual Inclusion" explore both color and texture as the flat painted images transform into stringy layers of tarlike gel, threatening to ooze onto the floor. Four smaller works resemble sea urchins, each one created with hundreds of spines of brightly colored acrylic paint. They beg to be touched, but seem too delicate or deadly.

Richmond artist Ron Johnson's work has never looked better. Three sheets of brightly hued Mylar cascade 20 feet from ceiling to floor. The placement of the piece in the middle of the gallery independent of the walls enables the viewer to navigate all sides — the translucent Mylar allowing views of both front and back — as well as stand in a space in between, surrounded by the work.

More subtle works contrast the bolder and brighter works of Fields and Johnson. Arguably the most beautiful work in the show is also the most understated. Kell Alexander Black's cut doilies show the history of flight from blimp to B-52 bomber to an Apollo Lunar Module. If not for the remarkable shadows cast by the intricate outlines of each vessel, the delicate white paper works would disappear into the white walls of the gallery.

"Plane Text" is only problematic when one attempts to gain insight as to why this work was brought together. Despite a garbled statement that promises everything without committing to anything, curators Schlatter and Sjovold deliver a show of very strong artists who combine, collapse and blend traditional artistic processes. S

There is a reception for "Plane Text" Friday, July 6, 7-10 p.m. The show runs through July 28 at 1708 Gallery. 643-1708.

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