Four artists explore the answer to life's hardest question. 

Life's Essence

What is the meaning of life?

Does any other question evoke such heated debate or such baffling responses? The question can never satisfactorily be answered; it is rhetorical, of course. And yet, artists have found life in all its permutations to be a constant source of inspiration.

"Life Forms," the current exhibition at the Hand Workshop, features the prints, drawings, embroidery and sculptures of four artists "who use biomorphic imagery as vehicles for personal expression." Referencing plant life, animal form and human anatomy through various media and varying levels of abstraction, these artists attempt to pin life down to its very essence and form.

The first gallery room features two-dimensional works by Tanja Softic and John Hawthorne. Softic, an associate professor of art at the University of Richmond and the daughter of a physician, lets the world of microscopic vision and science books inform her art. Her paintings and prints feature a personal iconography of bowls, skeletons, fossils, internal organs, plants and architectural elements. "Contain and Flow," a large painting, gives the viewer a chance to peer into the microscope. A network of veins, dissected forms, orchids and organs free-float before us, interspersed with blocks of color that feature architectural details. Softic's taxonomy is ordered yet flowing — a synthesis of earth-toned forms that paradoxically symbolize both chaos and order.

The fiber artist John Hawthorne, an associate professor in the crafts department at VCU, embroiders intricately stitched organic forms based on early 20th-century illustrations of marine life. Using cotton or silk thread on linen, Hawthorne's complex creations have equally complicated titles. "Aura 2, SF, Protozoa Foraminiferia with Radiolaria" is an evocative web of immaculate curves referencing both internal organs and quirky marine organisms. The sheer surrealistic beauty of these threaded vessels eclipses the stereotypically "precious" quality of traditional needlework.

The second room of the gallery is reserved for sculptural interpretations of life forms. Denver artist Scott Chamberlin creates fantastical wall-mounted terra-cotta works that present themselves like an inert parade of turgid bladders and bloated beehives. These wonderfully bulbous forms are strangely unsettling. They have an almost abject quality that both allures and repulses. Like Softic and Hawthorne, Chamberlin's ceramics are abstract, and yet they tantalizingly seem to reference something just out of reach.

"Fruct," for example, is comprised of three swollen rounded shapes covered with a curious surface of subtle bumps and veins — almost exactly like the skin of a cantaloupe. Other works have holes/orifices that punctuate their gaping, hollow nature. The nonsensical names of the pieces (Hode, Grun, Muth, etc.) underscore their potent ability to elude exact meaning to constantly defer constructed categorization.

Carol Brown, a Miami artist, continues this theme of bizarre hybrids of plant and animal life. Employing a claylike plastic compound mixed with graphite, Brown's nearly 900 objects are displayed in a grid of writhing anthropomorphic forms. On two walls, discrete circles or "tondos" teem with Dr. Seussesque horns, claws, cacti, spikes and tentacles. Alluding to medieval armor, sci-fi plants, and laboratory petri dishes, Brown's obsessive ordering speaks to the hobby of collecting and displaying nature (like butterflies or insects) and how these very forms protrude outward, tenaciously trying to resist such ordering.

Ashley Kistler, the curator at the Hand Workshop, is to be commended for intelligently organizing such a symbiotically cohesive show of well-crafted objects. "Life Forms" is a mesmerizing exhibition of what it means to live, whether in the elements of the earth or in the mind of the artist.


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