art: Hidden Messages 

Seven artists reveal the extraordinary using the outcast and the ordinary as material and subject matter.

If “Seven Messengers: Selections from the Art Count Project” had to be described in one phrase, maybe it would be that ordinary experiences can lead to the extraordinary.

The Art Count Project from three years back was an effort by 1708 Gallery and other state agencies to compile a database of Virginia visual artists. Among those counted and recently selected by artist and 1708 Gallery member Amie Oliver to form “Seven Messengers” are Todd Murphy, Joan Gaustad, Ben Pranger, Craig Pleasants, Kate Woodliff, Tom Nakashima and Aylene Fallah.

Oliver’s observation in the exhibition catalog that each of these artists addresses the human condition seems at first to state the obvious. After all, isn’t art by its nature a response to the human condition? But, indeed, many of these messengers are able to make connections to our very core using simple, palatable language. They help us make associations that are unexpected and sublime.

Birds in Murphy’s work, for example, suggest a spirit that is free to rise above earthly demands. In his “Sally Hemings,” a hawkish specimen appears to lift worldly burden from its master, while in “Found Objects/Woman With Bird,” stuffed specimens mounted on top of an ancient-looking bust project life, albeit transitory, from a static object.

Shelter is touched upon by Pleasants, whose tentlike constructions are stretched and anchored vertically on the wall. Found textiles like an Army-green oilcloth in “Tired” and a muddy pink bedspread in “Tekna.1” sheath wood armatures that no doubt imply temporary housing, but Pleasants resists literal interpretation by making sure they are impossible to occupy. In doing so, he leaves the viewer with an idea of a tent rather than a facsimile.

Woodliff also anchors representations of shelters to the wall rather the floor in her installation, “Potential for Disaster.” A village of paper-thin, miniature, plaster houses occupies a corner of the gallery. As if subjected to a natural catastrophe, the community collapses at the edges, while structures slam against one another and fall apart. Visually and conceptually provocative, this place might bring to mind the Gaza Strip or a flooded neighborhood near the James River. But like Pleasants, Woodliff counts on an open-ended reading by reminding the viewer of the artifice she creates.

Nakashima’s tremendous collages (about 8 feet by 13 feet) realistically represent piles of tree limbs and branches. They are built with thin strips of newspaper text that can be identified only when you are standing very close to the canvases on which they are glued. At first look, Nakashima’s landscapes cluttered by tree debris suggest senseless, destructive acts. Uprooted and sliced into pieces, the trees appear abandoned as rubbish. But the artist gives the entangled limbs another life. They are pictorially constructed of printed newsprint, and, in turn, the words are printed on newsprint made from wood. Visually and conceptually Nakashima transforms these mounds of dead matter into stuff ripe with life.

Each of the seven “messengers” reportedly represents seven regions of Virginia. But two (Gaustad and Woodliff) live in Richmond and one (Nakashima) has moved out of state. What counts of course is the art itself. Many of the 18 objects here are new to Richmond audiences, and most occupy their spot at 1708 with impressive presence. S

“Seven Messengers: Selections from the Art Count Project” is on display at 1708 Gallery, 319 W. Broad St., through July 5.

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