Exuberant Pattern at Towson University

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Exuberant Pattern at Towson University

Artists: Astrid Bowlby, Mugette Caland, Caroline Lathan-Steifel, Piper Shepard, and Merle Temkin
Curated by J. Susan Isaacs
October 9 – November 7, 2009
Center for the Arts Gallery

According to curator Susan Isaacs, “The first wave of feminist artists succeeded beyond their wildest imagination with today’s generation of artists feeling free to find inspiration from many sources without sensing any kind of prejudice or consideration from the larger arts community that their work is considered particularly feminine (used as a pejorative) or second tier.”

Exuberant Pattern, at Towson University, features the work of five female artists who reference decorative sources and espouse a distinctly feminine and pattern-based aesthetic.

During my twenty-or-so minute visit to the gallery, three different people approached the gallery attendant and inquired, “When will they be finished installing?” and “When are they going to clean it up?” The visitors were referring to the nest-shaped piles of paper near the door, which, upon closer inspection, are the ‘cut around’ pieces of paper from which many of the other shapes were cut. “It’s finished,” the gallery assistant would reply. “This is it.” Some of the people would shrug and look confused, and others would just beam.

Astrid Bowlby’s outrageous paper installation, titled No More Twist II, includes stray piles of discarded paper bits which migrate across the floor. Her bold black and white statement references natural forms: trees, flowers, rolling hills, and mountains. A huge floral shape appears to be sewn into the wall, made up of hundreds of catterpillar sized pieces of paper arranged and stuck on carefully. Long rolls of paper with obsessive pattern loll around the space and several tree silhouettes hint at the paper’s original incarnation. There is a cartoonish, tongue-in-cheek quality in Bowlby’s work, and the compelling and giddy sensation of walking into a three-dimensional cartoon. This installation is terrific and definitely worth a drive out to Towson University.

In a similar vein, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel’s Split Barrier is the best artwork made of pipe cleaners I’ve ever seen. Using small bits of reycled materials, including pipe cleaners, yarn, pins, plastic, thread, plastic ties, and styrofoam balls, the artist has managed to create an overwhelming jungle gym of color and texture, an environment to explore and a view to gaze from. Split Barrier elicits a childlike glee from the viewer and manages to communicate a sense of ridiculous largeness, despite the intensity in the arrangement of small, intricate detail. This work envelops you like an odd fisherman’s net or the ultimate gem sweater, and from it’s interior you feel a sweet sense of belonging.

Hugette Caland’s mixed media paintings on unstretched canvas communicate a similar obsessive aesthetic, but could be more carefully edited. Bold color choices, like saffron yellow and hot pink, are compelling, but surface detail varies from lovingly intricate to rushed at times. Caland’s paintings allude to international inspirations, including references to tribal African pattern, Lebanese textiles, and traditional Ikat weaving.

Merle Temkin’s modular installation, Only Me, includes two grids of acrylic paint and embroidery. After reading the curator’s statement, I learned that these zebra-striped patterns are created with Temkin’s left index finger and are intended as a ‘kind of self portrait.’ Temkin sews thread contour lines to emphasize her patterns.

Piper Shepard’s lacy compositions in cut muslin, fabric swatches, and corsage pins embody an exuberance-in-check that validates, and even glorifies, obsessive-compulsive disorder. To say that Shepard’s gigantic doilies are exquisite is a gross understatement. The two giant hanging compositions function like religious screens and are exponentially reinforced by their cast shadows on the wall and floor. Although I question the color choices of gray and purple, (Why not white? Lace is white.) Shepard’s works reference Belgian lace and Islamic tile patterns in a way that is both reverent and questioning. These works are magical in their density, labor, and intricacy, and are a delight to experience, simultaneously transcendent and immanent.

There is very little that is ‘second tier’ in Exuberant Pattern at Towson University. Without being overly feminine or sentimental, this exhibit celebrates the influence of non-western decorative sources in five unique bodies of contemporary work.

For more information, click here.

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