Art of Contradiction -- Art of Change

Dean Ruck at Hiram Butler and Katherine Hall at West End

In the current climate of slowdown and reassessment, in a country whose economic health and traditional identity appear to be dissolving, motifs of both preservation and decay seem timely. In exploring the repressed nature of bodily experience, some artists seek to return viewers to an encounter realized physically as well as aesthetically and intellectually -- a gut-level transaction that's a far cry from the impersonality of art's immaculate veneer. Works of this kind are not so much terminal expressions of a disenchantment with culture as they are perhaps last-ditch efforts to restore the mythic and spiritual aspects of life itself. Feeling is made the issue at stake. The emotional charge of materials, the personal relationship to experience, the desire to make contact with something real -- even sacred -- provide the challenge. Such drama is religious, as it frequently addresses the conflict between the inevitability of decay and our lust for preservation. It's reflected in much of the art of our time, art in which death and rebirth, apocalypse and revelation occur at once and within moments of both endings and beginnings.

With the awkwardness and obsession apparent in any expression of genuine emotion, Katherine Hall's haunting installation at West End Gallery comments on the inseparability of life and death. Where does the life go when a body dies? It's a question that many of us at middle age -- faced with the shock of mortality and aging parents -- mull over more frequently than we'd like to admit. And it's a question that prodded Hall to come to terms with the life and impending death of her mother, a former seamstress for Hollywood stars, a talented fashion illustrator and avid reader. She's blind now, has lost her memory and exists somewhere in that limbo between life and death. Hall felt compelled not only to sight her again through metaphor, but to plumb the depths of her soul by examining the monotonous processes that consumed her daily life. Is there something wonderful at the end to console her mother? Is there something beyond?

Hall's installation attempts nothing less than to conjure a palpable spirit. Upon entering the larger gallery, viewers come face to face with an elaborate horse harness composed of bit and bridle, blinders, fulsome girth and driving reins that sensuously loop where the rump would normally be and drape onto the ground like a long wavy tail. Suspended from the ceiling by taut fishing line, the harness looks like a marionette waiting for someone to pull the strings. But the harness also serves as a skeletal structure, a line-drawing floating in space that reveals some sense of a powerful head and body immobilized and brought under control. More mesmerizing than disturbing, the silhouette of oiled and pliable tack emerging from the shadows of the darkened gallery only accentuates the limitations of our senses. The smell of horse sweat, the texture of its fur are replaced by a shell, which we look through only to see nothing but the white walls of the gallery. Hall has lined the floor with clear plastic bubble wrap, effecting a random popping noise that makes your eyes blink and sends a defensive shudder up your spine. Of course, only a bridled horse with blinders could be controlled under such conditions.

The overwhelming frustration and numbness caused by immobility and the fear of treading on new ground find full expression in the smaller gallery. One wall is completely papered with her mother's old cookbook; another is covered with pages from books pertaining to the John Birch Society and McCarthyism (writings that both changed her life and kept her fearful), which Hall has blackened out.

In the center of the wall bearing recipes from the 1940s Woman's Home Companion Cook Book, Hall has placed a framed drawing of her mother's original sketches of sophisticated and haughty women, those Hollywood glamour stars of the '40s: Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford and the like. Accordingly, Hall dutifully transcribes portions of her mother's simple line-drawings -- images of hands, eyes and lips -- onto the yellowed and soiled pages extolling the virtues of fruit cups, cake decoration and tuna savory. Some drawings of the eyes look tortured and downright mean. Moreover, hands delicately bringing food to mouth can seem stiffly arthritic or limp and atrophied.

The opposing wall of layered blackened pages, which Hall is methodically erasing during the run of the show, looks like tarred shingles ripped off the roof of a house. Suspended in front of the slatelike wall is a thrift-shop still-life painting. Hall has affixed an X-ray machine behind the cracked and torn canvas, imbuing the image with the eerie glow of stained glass. The light emanating from the machine heats up the canvas and brings to life its mundane image of peaches and grapes, much like the veins of a body. Some cracks have the blinding force of lightning bolts; some tiny slits twinkle like stars. The overall effect of the gallery is that of a tomb. What's more, the pages covering both walls from floor to ceiling have no beginning, middle or end, reflecting additional metaphors of a life caught in limbo.

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