Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Nasty Nice and Apollo Prophecies, Sharon Servilio reviews Irvine

Melissa Ichiuji: Nasty Nice, Irvine Gallery

Melissa Ichiuji’s sculptures take the cozy world of homemade dolls into the more menacing territory of female roles and relationships. Her women, girls, and occasional animals are crudely hand-sown from nylon stockings and other fabrics, and incorporate such peculiar materials as the mouth of a fox. The figures, which range from about one foot to three feet in height, stand on pedestals that fill the entire gallery, inviting an intimate encounter with the viewer. Each figure engages in a different activity, allowing the artist to explore a wide range of ideas in the realms of sexuality, violence, coming of age, and identity. Initially disarming the viewer with their whimsical cuteness, the sculptures quickly lead to ruminations on sobering topics.

In Garden Party, four figures are sown using a floral fabric reminiscent of couch cushions and domesticity, giving them an air of rural naiveté. They peer at each other inquisitively as they try on penises made of pantyhose. The real strength of this piece is the remarkable precision in the gesture of the figures. Since they are faceless and their bodies consist of highly simplified shapes, gesture alone must tell their story and carry their emotive impact. Deftly posed, the figures seem uncannily ready to spring to life, instilling a feeling of playful curiosity into their experimentation with gender.

Another piece in which gesture enriches the narrative is Forgotten Girl. Two nylon girls stand on opposite sides of what seems to be a mirror. One is alert and clad in lighter, brighter colors; the other is dejected and somber, with bent posture and scars made of thread traversing her body. Immediately it raises the question: which is the forgotten girl? Is the sadder version looking back to an innocent, forgotten time of her youth? Or is the perky girl looking at a despondent version of herself repressed under her cheerful exterior? These are only two of many potential interpretations. Again, the success of the piece is due to the subtlety of the gesture, which endows these inanimate objects with a spark of humanity, evoking empathy and engaging the viewer’s imagination.

In Girl with Turtle, the gesture of the protagonist suggests ambiguity. Having just killed a turtle (her pet?), intentionally or unintentionally, she stands in a position that hovers between remorse and coyness, making her innocence questionable. In dialogue with another piece that portrays a girl and her dog dressed for a sadomasochistic relationship, it also calls into question the line between affection and violence.

The sculptures fall short when they slip into one-liners with too simple a read. In Snake-n-Eggs, a snake prepares to strike a woman’s vagina, which is portrayed as a nest with bird’s eggs. The analogy is humorous, but too obvious to suggest more depth. In Girl with Rabbit, a schoolgirl holds up a rabbit dripping with blood, while another bloody puddle forms from what seems to be her first menstruation. The comparison of the loss of innocence in coming of age to the loss of innocence in killing something is again too obvious of a read, leaving the viewer with a desire for more complexity.

In the overall installation, however, there are enough complex pieces to outweigh the one-liners. As a group, the sculptures open an expansive network of associations, questions, memories, and feelings about the many facets of girlhood, womanhood, and the transition between them.

Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick: The Apollo Prophecies: New Photographs, Irvine Gallery

The Apollo Prophecies is more than a series of photographs; it is a thoroughly realized myth presented in documentary format. According to the artists’ story, the astronauts of the Apollo missions encountered a lunar colony of previous space explorers from the Edwardian era. The exhibit includes various forms of fabricated documentation, such as a booklet containing a lengthy prophecy held by the Edwardian moon-dwellers, which Kahn and Selesnick wrote in collaboration with a physics student. The prophecy foretells the coming of the Apollo astronauts in symbolic biblical language, and contains esoteric references to historical figures and events surrounding the lunar missions of the 1960’s. As visual documentation, astronauts and their equipment are portrayed in soft-edged, Edwardian-style photographs, while small drawings appear to be plans or studies for building equipment and space suits.

The focal point of the exhibition is a series of lush panoramic black-and-white digital prints, each 10 by 72 inches, which dreamily narrate both the original flight to the moon by the Edwardians and their discovery in the 1960’s by Apollo astronauts. The most breathtaking of these are the three newest photos, all from 2006, which open the series with the preparation and liftoff of the Edwardian rocket. These are all staged and composed with the highest degree of precision. The photographers’ formal decisions included setting the entire breadth and depth of field in high focus, as well as lighting the scene as an overcast day, creating a delicious range of low-contrast grays. All of these elements, combined with the fantastical imagery, sustain a vision that is theatrical, romantic, nostalgic, and epic.

In Radarmen, the panorama spans a landscape which seems to merge beach and desert. The rocket ship has just taken off, and can be seen in the distance with a perfectly formed, curving trail of smoke behind it. In the foreground, a dozen men act as human radar. With pyramid-shaped cloth satellite dishes strapped to their backs, the men bend and contort enthusiastically to receive the signals while a commander directs and encourages. The satisfying composition is calculated to its minutest detail, and the choreography of the men is reminiscent of classical compositions like The School of Athens. Among the characters there is an overall feeling of idealism and loyalty to the mission.

In fact, the overall exhibition evokes a nostalgia for a time when scientific explorations were seen as idealistic, humanistic ventures, and the unknown world of space travel a thrilling enigma, experienced only through the fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. With the proliferation of bad science fiction, the stigma associated with “trekkie” culture, and the regularity of NASA missions reported on the news, most people no longer look at space exploration with wonder. The humanistic tone of the work is reinforced by repeated references to the Renaissance. In addition to the classicism noted above, the artists’ drawings resemble Da Vinci’s sketches of inventions, and the artists themselves state that the narrative is meant to be structured after fresco cycles such as Masaccio’s chapel.

The weakness of the exhibition lies in the earlier panoramas (2004-5), which include the scenes on the moon. With a more fragmented composition, shallow space, and stage-like lighting, these images do not sustain the fiction. Rather than acting as a comprehensive experience, they seem more like a backdrop to display the inventive costumes, space capsules, and other whimsical creations of the artists. However, if the newer work is an indication of the artists’ future direction, it seems to predict that their world will become increasingly more believable.

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