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School 33’s five-artist exhibit vacillates between elusive and alluring

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“X Marks the Spot,” one of Dan Perkins’ five oil-on-canvases in bipolar at School 33


At School 33 through March 8

What in the Sam Hill is going on in Katie Duffy’s “Searching for Medusa, Pussy Protector (Door Guardian)”? The two-channel video piece hangs like a large evil-eye thingymajig in the small side gallery off School 33’s main room. It’s a diamond shape missing one corner. Some feathers and beads adorn it. The video loops—seemingly different on each side, though possibly the same video not running synchronous with the other screen—straddle the spacey and space age-y. A giant eye in the center of the screen blinks. A series of human lips—or is that a tongue?—rings the eye like flower petals. The lips/tongue kinda vibrate, move, rustle, and it becomes clear they’re kaleidoscope-like reflections: a single tongue/lip becoming a pair that moves in tandem, reflected across an axis. At one point, the eye fades out and the lips/tongue things start drifting around, flying pink fleshy bits passing through space like disembodied something-or-others. No idea what kinds of associations and thoughts it’s supposed to convey. Given the title, could it be some mythopoeia qua Freudian notion from the mind’s inner sanctum on the fear of castration? Because it feels like an idea that didn’t pass test screenings to make it into the final cut of Gerald Potterton’s 1981 movie Heavy Metal.

Like the video piece, School 33’s BiPolar—a juried five-artist show featuring Lauren Frances Adams, Katie Duffy, Mary Frank, Hedieh Ilchi, and Dan Perkins—is a bit of a mess. An intentional mess, mind you, but one nonetheless. As curated by Andrea Pollan, the founder and director of the nimble-minded Curator’s Office space in Washington, D.C., BiPolar ostensibly explores the tensions artists experience trying to reconcile the art world, including its market and academy, with the creative drive. This is the “authentic experience in art production,” Pollan writes in her exhibition essay, and it’s a bit confusing how typing that out in your out-loud voice is any kind of organizing idea. Isn’t every art exhibition a faith-leap by the individual artist into the art world? For chrissakes: Just because you articulate that eating is both navigating that delicate balance between providing the vital nutrients needed to fuel the body and pleasing your own personal palette doesn’t mean you’re not just having your fucking lunch.

Unless, of course, emphasizing the neurotic gymnastics of that flabbergasting thought process is what’s on display here. BiPolar’s five artists differ in media—Adams works in installation, Duffy with video, Frank sculpts, Ilchi and Perkins are painters—and range widely in subject matter, ideas, color palettes, and scale. But the resulting effect of all the work is remarkably offset: a pensive confusion mixed with superficial glee. Everything here is cool to behold, but plunging its surfaces in search of something to hold onto can be a fraught maze.

Where Duffy’s “Medusa” video piece and her nearby “Brutalist Mystique” feel elusive, Adams’ “Hoard II” simply feels like it’s still gestating. This installation seems to create a room-like space in a corner of the gallery—Adams designed the wallpaper and painted the gouache-on-paper painting on the wall, which she pairs with painted gourds and freshwater pearls arranged on the floor. The environment that feels vaguely English for some reason. Only after consulting Adams’ website and perusing a press release for her 2012 “Hoard” installation at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis did aspects of the piece start to come into focus: Adams’ work is ostensibly exploring “encounters between the leaders of Elizabethan England and the North American ‘New World’ in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.”

OK, so the installation is an investigation of power—or at least striving to tackle that minefield. That element simply isn’t successfully communicated by the work. The hint of imported Englishness domestication, sure, the whiff of the natural being altered in some way by the contact, maybe. But moving through putative associations toward some idea that coalesces in the mind as an emotional, intellectual, psychological ad infinitum response to the arranged visual information? That brain detonation isn’t there yet, and all but one of BiPolar’s artist’s works hover somewhere in this creative fog, trying to evolve into lyrical fugue.

The painters here have sublime pleasure down. Ilchi’s five abstract works showcase her utter fearlessness with respect to color. “Listen to my song of freedom” is a Giles Lyon explosion of bougainvillea pink, Miami Beach-hotel blue, and crimsons that run from fresh cut to new scab. Painting on Mylar seems to give her colors an extra spark. Only after staring at the sheet for a few minutes does the small female figure with a megaphone emerge, and the whole piece takes on this mood of a person screaming out of a colorful void, but sadly you can’t hear a thing. Perkins’ five oil-on-canvases are more sneakily striking. “X Marks the Spot” could be some otherworldly landscape, a shelter of some sort in the foreground with a ridgeline in the distance and the sky an explosive aurora of light. It’s a fascinating effect on the canvas, somehow both far-out 1960s sci-fi movie poster and bitching 1970s conversion-van decoration, leading to a odd place of unease. Looking at it, you move from Close Encounters of the Third Kind wonder to The X-Files worry without ever really figuring out why.

Mary Frank is the outlier here, and that may only be due to her more modest goals. Her three sculptures use simple, traditional chairs. Her “Jane Addams’ Chair” is a copper-plated steel rocker that’s only about 2 feet high. “Cassiopeia Dreams of Better Days” is a wall-covering flock of palm-sized steel chairs. “Remembering Andromeda” is a pile of book-sized steel chairs. Taken as a set, the chair become this quietly profound articulation of female strength, the idea uniting Cassiopeia and her daughter Andromeda—punished for their beauty—and Addams, the American pragmatist and mother of social work. Frank’s sly approach allows form to amplify effect here, moving from the large, constellation structures of raw steel chairs in “Cassiopeia Dreams of Better Days” and “Remembering Andromeda” to the small but unyielding rocker, defiantly radiating with the boastful glow of a shiny penny. The result is an economical dance of emotional pull and visual allure that flowers from the heart to the brain at a glance. It’s not so much that the four other BiPolar artists miss that mark as that their works haven’t quite established the fluency to make their imagery and the ideas behind them vibrate at the same frequency in their viewers.

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