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Best of Providence 2009

Beauty for beauty's sake

Feminist art
By GREG COOK  |  January 28, 2009

SMALL THINGS: One of Hesser’s cocoons.
For several years, Cristin Searles of Providence has been stitching together soft sculptures that catchily evoke natural forms. At Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery two years ago, she turned quilted fabric into a dark blue bubbly cloud. And tousled furry green things sprouted along the gallery walls like moss. Her lovely new sculpture show, "Snowblind," at Bristol Community College's Grimshaw-Gudewicz Art Gallery (777 Elsbree Street, Fall River, Massachusetts, through February 19), lives up to the frosty title in its white-on-white palette. But except for Yolk, which resembles a gang of tall candles or icicles dangling from the ceiling, the forms actually bring to mind the flowering of spring blossoms or undersea life.

The sculptures seem by turns familiar and surprising as Searles reinvents typical biological structures in beads, cotton organdy, crinoline, and vinyl and improvises new forms. Brood is a collection of smooth oval rocks, wrapped in white wool yarn, arranged in an oval on the floor. It looks like a colony of fish eggs or seeds ready to sprout. Searles adopts many of the attributes of classic Minimalism — massing, repetition of a basic vocabulary of forms — but warms them up with her soft materials and textures.

Bug Eye is a long horizontal cluster of various sized white fabric cup-like things with black rims. They run across the corner of the gallery, about halfway up the wall, like barnacles. Their mouths seem to open, revealing red beads, black wire, and translucent yellow discs, like blossoms inside. Lash is a series of white beads, surrounded by ostrich feather plumes. They're hung from the ceiling so they appear to float on the air like downy dandelion seeds.

I find myself wishing for counterpoints to all the repetition. The coherence of the four pieces here already suggests that Searles may be heading toward greater formal variety by weaving what are now discrete pieces into grand invented sculptural ecosystems. But Searles does what she does splendidly, finely crafting her fabrics into alluringly meditative sculptures.

Kim Salerno's sculptures at the Wheeler School's Chazan Gallery (228 Angell Street, Providence, through February 5) also adopt a white-on-white palette, though here it brings to mind white weddings. Salerno, who resides in Newport, presents White Sea, an installation of 20 white paper and organza sculptures dangling by strings from the ceiling. They are elaborate constructions of white paper rings, discs (some with spiky edges like machine gears), and wavy strips. It's like doilies in heaven. But to be more specific, the hanging sculptures resemble mutant mashups of jellyfish, tutus, water lilies, wedding cakes, chandeliers, and party favors. The results are like cotton candy — sugary delicious, but can leave you craving something more nourishing.

Searles and Salerno are part of a broad group of artists rapturously re-embracing beauty. Twentieth-century Modernism's main line wound up in a final march toward Minimalist and Conceptualist asceticism. But by the 1990s, the art world was buzzing with talk of a return to beauty. It was mainly a reserved Minimalist beauty — think Fûlix González-Torres. But now we have lush, bubbly, decorative, rapturous beauty.

The prettiness of much of this art taps into a tradition of feminist art, beginning around 1970s feminist Pattern and Decoration art, which challenged macho æsthetics by embracing floral, decorative, domestic (i.e., "feminine") designs. This idea continues to play out in third-wave feminist art's embrace of the girly.

This reconsideration of gender roles is also apparent in the embrace of traditional lady crafts like sewing and paper-cutting. Crafts too serve as an assertion of humanity in our ever more digital, synthetic world by offering the old how-did-they-do-that thrill of people producing amazingly intricate stuff with their hands.

When I sometimes itch for the work to be more meaty — formally or conceptually — I know I'm butting up against a question at the heart of this trend. It dares you to question whether beauty for beauty's sake is enough.

Also at Chazan Gallery, Jane Hesser of Providence exhibits black-and-white photos mainly shot with a 4"x5" view camera. She gets up close to small things — nests, roots, cocoons — and then adopts a shallow depth of focus, so that you can read tiny details while the rest becomes a sweet soft blur. Other images show human neurons, photographed with a camera rigged to a microscope. A lot depends on Hesser's choice of subjects. The tangles of branches and neurons don't do a lot for me, but the tiny cocoons, unfamiliar but resembling knit and felted bowls, draw me in.

Read Greg Cook's blog at

Related: Fresh forms, Worth another look, A Visual Buffet, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Bristol Community College, Cristin Searles, Providence,  More more >
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