MUTATED A video still from Ehrenberg’s Seed.
A sign of a thriving art community is its influence, the way other artists adopt and adapt its looks and methods and thinking. Tracing the way ideas spread through a community and beyond is not something curators of local exhibitions often address (the last notable example might be the glass artists that the RISD Museum rounded up to augment its 2008 Dale Chihuly show) but it's where art history changes from just being a list of names and dates and becomes a story.
The stated theme of "Homecoming," in the inner lobby of Brown University's List Art Center (64 College St, Providence, through June 22), is work by five Brown alums about "the body and the various ways it is represented." But perhaps without realizing it, curators Heather Darcy Bhandari and Ann Tarantino, both 1997 Brown grads, have created an opportunity to consider Providence art's influence.
"Homecoming" features Jonathan Ehrenberg (class of '97), Orly Genger ('01), Kevin Kramp ('02), Maria Walker ('02), and Saya Woolfalk ('01), artists who got their diplomas and then soon left for London (Kramp) or New York (all the rest). It's a sampler, offering just a taste of each artist's output in a rough gallery space. But note those graduation dates: 1997 to 2002. Those were peak years for Providence's psychedelic printmaking explosion and the related crafty, handmade, feminist, messy, monstery art produced by the collectives Dirt Palace (founded 2000) and Fort Thunder (1995 to 2002) and other kindred spirits. The Fort performance quartet Forcefield (Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain, Leif Goldberg, Ara Peterson) filled a giant room with a midnight alien invasion of beeping mannequins covered with furs and knit costumes at the "Whitney Biennial" in New York in 2002.
INVENTED MYTHOLOGY Woolfalk’s Reclining figure.
Woolfalk's Technicolor soft fabric sculptures and costumes, usually embodying her invented mythology of a race of human-plant hybrids, clearly fall into this lineage — from the psychedelic colors to the monster narrative to the feminist reclamation of traditional crafts. Reclining figure with facial adornment (2012) is a mannequin dressed in a leafy, bridal white pantsuit, sneakers, and quilted cape laid out in a glass case. A skeleton stitched together from rainbow-hewed fabrics sits atop the body. The face is encrusted with green and white beads and faux butterflies with crystals sprouting from the mouth. The effect is dulled in the show's somewhat haphazard grouping, but it looks like an alien Snow White whose face has been eaten by evil glittery parasites while waiting in her glass coffin for Prince Charming's kiss.
A mysterious narrative is also at the center of Ehrenberg's 2010 video Seed, which features masked actors performing a slow, tremulous, visionary but somewhat thinly developed tone poem. A man discovers his nose has fallen into his bowl while he's eating, so he goes to a spare body parts shop where he gets a tree branch to replace it. Then his hand falls off and is replaced by another branch. Then he opens his shirt and finds moss. He finally mutates into a tree with an owl nesting in his belly.