Visual Pranks 

A high-spirited show fills a larger Reynolds Gallery

In that vein, the character of her show launching the new, larger exhibition space is appropriately and unabashedly positive — even gleeful.

As well as representing regional artists, Bev Reynolds commonly shows artists she notices in New York museums and galleries. For "Fictions in Wonderland," the title of this kickoff exhibition, she displays five emerging artists on the national scene plus internationally known Sally Mann for this fun and fantasy extravaganza. A few have received the stamp of approval by being included in the Whitney Biennial, while the rest are making waves in alternative venues.

"Fictions in Wonderland" floods the gallery in volume and youthfulness apparent the minute one enters the gallery. Sharing a revved-up energy and aggressive attitude, Alyson Shotz's "Still Life" and E.V. Day's "G-Force (Jet Wash)" frame the exhibition like the gates of Disneyland. Shotz's three-dimensional, overscaled version of wetland flora mixes leggy, cartoonlike stalks supported by small furniture coasters and topped with yellow and green leaves, and seedpods. The artist connects the plants to electrical cords and outlets as if the organism is part machine. Day's installation of thongs stretched and suspended at diagonals with microfilament, converts provocative lingerie into stealthy flying machines. Taunting the audience with their scale and suggestions of motion, these two playfully test the viewer's equilibrium.

Another theme running through the exhibition is the use of precarious media. Most of the six featured artists work with unruly materials that challenge convention when it comes to form. Roxy Paine takes this tack to extremes by designing a machine that extrudes gallons of polyethylene to form what he calls "Scumak," a gooey substance that retains its liquid appearance after it has hardened. Paine supplements his series of white and red rubbery blobs produced by this process with a video tape recording of the production in process, thereby turning his contribution into a performance piece of sorts.

Christopher Chiapa's photographs of skulls made from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a skull made from french fries underscore the comic atmosphere of the exhibition. One can only imagine what compels an artist to take such care carving a structure of white bread with peanut butter and jelly acting as mortar, but the mental image of such an act is as entertaining as the finished product. Less wacky but as unexpected is Tara Donovan's "Colony" in which hundreds of shortened pencils standing side by side cover about three square feet of floor in low relief. A fantasy habitat in miniature, "Colony" offers a soothing analogue to Shotz's take on nature.

Sally Mann seems an odd addition to this show of visual pranks, but her dreamy photographs somehow work. Reynolds isolates Mann's work from the playful atmosphere of the show, devoting a room to samples from the artist's "Immediate Family" and "Deep South" series. Dreamy images of the landscape, sometimes including children, appear deceptively pure. In her 1988 photograph "Crossed Sticks," the blurred images of small figures appear to play at the fork of a river or stream. The muddy earth at the crotch of the fork is marked with a tall branch stuck in the middle of the mound like a flagpole and is carved with lines that might have been etched by children with sticks. That Mann would and could capture such a carefree, unconscious moment explains half of the appeal; that such an image could draw so much longing explains the rest.

Mann surely snares the viewer between truth and fiction, and in her recent large-scale Southern landscapes she capitalizes on myths and legends perpetuated by William Faulkner and James Dickey, to name a few. The blown-up, unfocused images tinged with tea stains romantically picture formless horizons and craggy trees that could be anywhere, but she douses the photograph with implied history, calls them Southern, and voil…, the audience immediately thinks Vicksburg or Natchez. True or fictitious, Mann's versions of the South conjure relationships between earth and humans that are as old as dirt.

Other than Mann's excursions into memory, and Shotz's playful takeoff on bioengineering, "Fictions in Wonderland," is mostly about creative process and tactile appeal. And while the work may involve complicated processes, it sidesteps complicated messages or theoretical underpinnings and in that way frees the viewer to see creativity in its most basic manifestation.

"Fictions in Wonderland" is a minimalist tribute to the creative spirit, celebrating the artist's urge to tempt fate, to experiment, to confront the truth, and at the same time to tell lies. S

"Fictions in Wonderland" will be up at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., through Dec. 14. Call 355-6553 for details.


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