Arts » Visual Arts

Twist and shout

Seduction and evisceration at the Mint



I came to the Mint Museum of Craft + Design to review the Twisted! show because I liked the title. Once in the museum, a woman distracted me from my appointed rounds.

Ann Wolff is one of those artists I very infrequently come across -- one I just can't walk past. She is a craftsman, a thinker, a teller of tales, and multifaceted in both technique and character. An Iconic Every(wo)man -- layered and complex, but approachable. She's an anomaly among humans, and a lottery hit among artists.

Observations -- Works by Ann Wolff is Wolff's largest retrospective to date, and Charlotte is the sole venue for this show. It spans roughly 30 years of Wolff's work, 1978-2004, and follows the psychic and material peregrinations of this woman's curious journey.

Wolff's material inquiries include drawings -- pencil, pastel and charcoal, watercolors, bronze and glass. Her forte is glass. She's given this hard and vitreous material a narrative life through her explorations of self, through roles the artist has taken on as mother, lover, mate and loner. The glass -- and her other less surly materials -- are shared diaries of introspection. She keeps the work as simple as possible, but no simpler.

The bowls are the first thing. They're called vessels in higher ground vernacular, and, at least in this case, the distinction is warranted. Wolff's vessels don't hold Fruity Pebbles or Caesar salads, but pictographs of her life, her character, and a piece of the scenery the artist assimilated on her trek through this vale.

The images include hard edged stairways and tables in the belly of the bowl; wide-eyed, placid and inquisitive faces; women with pendulous breasts; shivering, thin men; happy, prone women; and one woman bound to a long-beaked, barrel-crested bird.

The vessels and plates are mostly blue, each blasted or etched or coated with whites and yellows and reds serving as background or filled to the images. At the edges, colors meld; the closest painters she visits are Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and the soft side of Kandinsky. The glass is luminous and alluring, eye-magnets and body-movers. The vessels draw your eye, hold your body still and fix your attention, and then they spill their stories by indirection and nuance.

Of her many material forays, Wolff's glass collage technique is the most arresting and revealing. "Cologne Suite I" is two sets of molded glass suspended in a black frame. The piece is viewed from both sides. Sheets of frosted (or blasted) glass are suspended on each side of a 5" frame. The painted face on one sheet moves as we move -- first hidden, then peeking around a corner, then revealed head on.

"Cologne Suite 3" is a portrait of the artist unmasked. The woman's pensive face is framed front and center, both within and behind a sheet of sandblasted glass. With one eye staring forward and one averted, she appears to be considering inquiry and flight simultaneously. The woman holds a mask between her hands below her chin. She has just revealed herself, or is in the motion of concealing her face behind the mask. The woman wears black. A red swath of paint cloaks her upper torso like a bloody aura. Here's the artist revealed -- pensive, alert, aware; at once fascinated with the world outside and concerned with which mask to face it. She's not quite sure who to be next.

Wolff's drawings are springboards to, and signposts of, her three-dimensional work. They are quirky and spare, riddled with naked bodies and veiled meanings. Her hand alternates between tentative, oscillating somewhere between Giacometti and Ralph Steadman (the guy who illustrated Hunter Thompson's books).

Surprisingly, Ann Wolff's work is affordable. And available. A selection of the artist's Vitreographs -- prints of drawings pulled from glass plates -- are available down the street from the museum, at Hodges Taylor Gallery in the Transamerica Square on North Tryon.

A curator at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design landed on a twisted idea: Let's plumb the tombs of the museum and scout out what we have down there in our collection. Let's rumble through the stash and find a theme! Something with an edge, with élan, with contemporary vigor ... oh, oh, oh, I know ... Twisted! Oh yeah, I like Twisted!

The truly twisted aspect of this show is that it works -- perhaps the basement museum vaults are fat enough to serve any adjective or verb. Curatorial decorum insists on a straight presentation of a twisted idea. Four categories parse out the Objets du Twisted: Surface Pattern, Portraiture, Formalism and Transformation. Whatever.

Dining under the candlelit rubric of Portraiture are three masked men. Justin Novak's "Free Market" is a graphic and amusing comment on the bestial side of capitalism. Each portly man bends and bites and pulls on the shiny red viscera of their fallen colleague. Novak's earthenware tableau is dull and mute, the color of pablum -- the table, skin, the chairs they sit on. The voracious three hide their faces behind masks. Yum. Greed is good.

On a lighter note, it's amazing what an artist can do with willow wood and bamboo. "Column of Small Gestures," by John McQueen, is a totem pole of woven willow branches bound with waxed thread. At the top of the six-foot totem, heads and shoulders press out from each side of a branchy cube. In willowed relief, one head gestures with fist and open palm, one hides his face in horror, two heads embrace and kiss, and a final reaches around the cube toward the embraced. The meanings behind the small gestures escape me, but the intricacy and bonded strength of the woven willow does not.

Bonnie Seeman's terracotta "Ileocol Teapot" appears to be sculpted from the lining of a stomach. The teapot has been opened -- like a skull hinged at the top -- to allow us a look at the pot innards, composed of serpentine intestines, cartilage and -- let me guess -- a bifurcated colon? A calcified calf muscle fashions the handle, with a stout artery for the spout. Tea time!

And soup's on! "Scream Monkey Soup Tureen" is a glazed stoneware soup bowl the size of a prize-winning pumpkin. The body of the bowl is embellished with maple leaf and grape vines. Perched on the lid is a carefully articulated monkey, with an aggressive vine wrapped around his neck. The monkey tumbles backward and screams. This fuzzy beast is an advanced monkey; he has fine square teeth, expressive eyes and sculpted Elvis hair; his fine-boned hand vainly grasps the vine pinching at his life. I can relate -- he's more me than he is Bonzo. I prefer the tea, thanks.

"Crazy Quilt," by Anonymous, is a marvel to behold, and it won't give you nightmares or send a feather top spinning through your belly. "Crazy Quilt" may, however, spark a psychedelic flashback. The quilt of the unknown artist was stitched together from pieces of cotton and flannel around 1900. Thousands of cloth pieces are aligned like patterned sticks of chewing gum in little grids. From 20 feet away, they resemble an aerial photograph of painted rafts floating down a river. The smallest swatches hug the quilt's perimeter, the larger grid swatches are bunched in the center and appear to be getting bigger, as if they're approaching the viewer. The optical effect is a pulse, and vertigo sets in if you stare too long. The piece is best seen peripherally, with a side glance. You wouldn't want to tumble to the gallery floor.

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