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Turbulent Waters

Exhibit by NC artists is an eruption of emotion

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Around the world, visual artists are prone to use their art to address political issues or social crises, to enable their paintings or photographs or installations to confront matters of war, global unrest, environmental degradation, animal abuse and the apocalypse.

North Carolina artists are no exception.

The universal eruption of emotion that takes visual form today can be blatant, or it may be left to seethe just beneath the surface. Both alternatives are on view in Crosscurrents: Art, Craft and Design in North Carolina, currently at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design.

Many of the subjects on view imply violence or irony tinged with violence. They may be coolly anti-war: At the exhibition entrance, you'll be met by an ink-jet print-on-canvas painting of a missile, seemingly life-size and mounted horizontally on the wall to appear suspended and on the way to some deadly mission.

A subtle though ominous shadow hangs beneath this painting, which is called "First Night: Dirty Bomb" (2004) and rendered exactingly by Charlotte artist David B. Brodeur with the assistance of Adobe Photoshop. According to the accompanying copy, it depicts "specific weapons the United States has deployed in Iraq."

No less intense is "Bread & Bullets" (2005), a room-size installation by Lauren F. Adams of Goldsboro. At first glance, it appears to be the recreation of a docile domestic setting in the form of an entire dining room, but up close it turns out to be a study in subversive detail. Rather than concentrating on one element (a missile) as Brodeur does, Ms. Adams includes all the guns-and-roses: painted wall borders, flooring and windows, plates, a clock, even the hand-painted fabric on dining-chair cushions.

Adams gives the darkly comic title "Granny Smith & Wesson" (2003) to an acrylic-on-canvas toile painting, which she uses as upholstery fabric. As Adams states, "I am particularly interested in the concept of decorative patterns as visual 'background noise,' as something we see all the time but rarely comment upon." These intriguing references to war that first appear cozy would make an ironic quotation installed alongside some Victorian room settings from London's Victoria and Albert Museum's immense collection.

Other outpourings of emotional tension in Crosscurrents take the form of feminist self-portraits, materializations of personal mourning and alternative readings of landscape. In the name of feminism, Gwen Bigham, who shows some intriguing sculptures featuring domestic objects and also constructs a corset from cellophane and corsage pins, could team up with Paula Smith and Caroline Rust, two South Carolina artists, for a fortifying show of women artists who address issues of femininity.

For the secular, art spaces have become places for worship or mourning, for contemplation ... quieter places to let the mind stretch, places for wonder. Here, there are more things to wonder about.

From nihilism to annihilation is not such a long leap. Crosscurrents contains its share of apocalyptic visions, including that of Ron Rozzelle, whose "Me and the Apocalypse" (2005), an ambitious mixed media piece, reveals what appears to be his particular obsession.

A more transcendent view of death is evident in the work of Raleigh artist Jennie Bireline. Accompanied by the poetry of Rilke, Berry and Levertov, Bireline's series of beautiful hand-constructed earthenware works refers to the last three months of her husband's life and reflects, with great beauty, her feelings of sadness, loss and rebirth.

In "The Consumer Culture Garden" by EAT, a team of five artists from Raleigh, a deep blue, glowing koi pond in a darkened room contains digitized fish that bear corporate slogans about branding. This one makes an attempt to "explore the intersection of consumerism and art." Even though I found the sounds ambiguous in this animated installation and didn't get the interactive component, this is entertaining in its attempted seriousness.

"For the Flag," a photo collage by Anne Kesler Shields of Winston-Salem that "comments on the confluence of art and politics," is an assemblage of 28 square photographic panels that forms the suggestion of a narrative, both sequential and non-sequential. The format causes your eye to dart around and your mind to make associations.

Craftsmanship is a major joining point in Crosscurrents, and with few exceptions, this show is about good craft. If some pieces don't seem to measure up ... well, we must be thankful that curators included painting and high-quality photography in the panoply of media presented here, especially the gorgeous richness of abstract painting by Susan Brenner, Maja Godlewska and others.

Another valuable aspect of this show's very existence and its challenging subject matter struck me while reading a recent artists' call for entries for a fall show to be held at a community college. I was astonished by the caveat under the heading "Requirements for Submissions" that read, "Nudes or imagery with overt religious or sociopolitical themes will not be considered."

This reminds me, like a cold slap, that we live in a culture where even a call for entries can impose such crippling and small-minded limitations, redolent of the censorship of totalitarian and fundamentalist regimes. Happily, these curatorial restrictions do not appear to apply to Crosscurrents, making this showing of North Carolina artists all the more rare and valuable. It's quite a good show, and many of the pieces are strong and bold -- in both concept and execution.

Organized by the Mint Museums and the North Carolina Museum of Art, Crosscurrents opened in Raleigh in September 2005 and moved to Charlotte in January this year. Let us hope the innovative project, which marks the first major artistic collaboration between these museums, turns into a pilot for many more such exhibition opportunities for North Carolina artists.

The exhibit Crosscurrents: Art, Craft and Design in North Carolina is on view through Sunday, August 6, at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, 220 N. Tryon St. Hours are 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday and 12noon-5pm Sunday. For more information, call 704-337-2000 or go to www.mintmuseum.org.

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