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Life on the Farm 

Renee Montague moves physically-- and artistically--to the country

Raising Consciousness: A Path, the interesting new installation by veteran area artist Renee Montague, is currently on display at the Raleigh Contemporary Gallery. Montague, an Artspace associate since 1996, moved from downtown Raleigh in 1999 to a family farm in Holly Springs, then to her own farm in Goldsboro in February of last year, and her new show reflects her change of environment. This installation is the second in Montague's Seeking the 10,000 Things series. In a phone interview, the artist said that this project grows out of her increasing interest in the "constant cycle of life on a farm" since moving from the city: Montague had to "get comfortable" with repeatedly experiencing "something being born and dying," and Raising Consciousness shows her working through her initial discomfort.

In the smallish installation, white muslin panels hang from the ceiling, making walls that form, in the artist's words, a "labyrinth" that, with three turns, winds in upon itself. The walls bear a total of 11 graphite drawings on paper of a colt in fetal position. These drawings progress from a lightly drawn, seemingly incomplete sketch, to a boldly outlined solid shape, which is then enveloped by darkness. The shape has receded significantly by the final drawing, to an image that is almost like a photographic negative of the first one.

This final drawing is at the center of the labyrinth. Here we find a black chair and a wooden table upon which are placed 11 balls of horse fur and two stones. Above the table are three oil paintings of a tree, a snake, and a tesseract. These short-hand symbols are respectively titled "Knowledge," "The Unknown" and "Wisdom."

Montague says that the tesseract, which is defined as an analogue of a cube, suggests a fourth dimension. This is a bit grandiose for an otherwise humble commentary about life on a farm: A statement about transcending the confines of the known three dimensions doesn't quite work as a visual footnote, and it registers as a tacked-on conclusion.

Far more apropos is the small brown notebook hanging from the table by a chain, a diary filled with charming, jumbled notes on Montague's day and thoughts. Take for example the first entry from Oct. 11: "'Enchanted April'/Film. Like Playing w/ puppies. (Four women find real love) Afghani women living in prison imposed by Afghani men. Afghani men imprisoned by themselves. Playing with puppies is the best game. Ever." This is followed by a brief synopsis of an episode of Star Trek.

This notebook, with its seemingly arbitrary associations, is entirely personal in its near indecipherability, but universal in its desire to transcribe feelings into language. In this way, it serves as the key to Raising Consciousness: A Path. The progression of the sketches that turn on themselves, the contemplative chair in front of the desk, and the intended (but absent) tension between "Knowledge" and "The Unknown" is complemented better with this honest record of thought processes and reflective moments. Because of its focus on the personal and the process, this notebook would serve as a far better conclusive element than the cryptic tesseract.

The annual New Member Exhibition went up last week at Raleigh's Artspace, made up of works by artists chosen by the last three admissions juries. Every spring and fall, new artists gain admission into the Artspace Artists Association, which is juried by either the Assistant Director (formerly Corkey Goldsmith; Mary Poole has taken over since the last jury) or Executive Director Courtenay Bailey, two in-house artists, and two outside artists, gallery owners, professors, or critics. The jury changes every time in order to keep the system from getting "clubby," says Bailey.

The work of 10 new members is presently exhibited in the Upfront Gallery, while the silk hangings of new member Mary Vandergraft hang in the adjacent lobby. Mary Cook's "Tree Study #8" is a small oil on canvas. Anthony Ulinski, a longtime woodworker, displays here a boldly colored acrylic painting titled "Five Tomatoes on a Blue Plate." Cathy Kiffney's "Bird Butterfly and Flower Black Crackle Fan" is a relatively decorative piece of ceramic craftsmanship. A puffy felt piece by Rachel Nicholson called "Cosmos and Daisies" is, as its title suggests, simultaneously trippy and quaint. "Remembering Mother Teresa," by Woody Chaimongkol, is a charcoal portrait of Mother Teresa and a wide-eyed child that is, through no fault of its own, remarkably out of place alongside the rest of the work. "Blue Grotto Abstract" is a large, gaudy lime-green acrylic painting by retired school teacher Bob Rankin. Julie Olson's "Moss Box" sits delicately inside a glass case. Jim Shell's "Emily Dickinson in Japan" portrays three human figures in a slightly oriental-looking room, the middle figure peeking from behind a wall. It's a lovely pastel that depicts a moment in a private narrative that the viewer is free to invent.

Ashley Gruber's mostly yellow mixed-media "Chance Meeting" also stands out as one of the better pieces. Gruber's collage is confidently kinetic, avoiding the trouble around the edges that many abstract painters face. She seems to get it to fit comfortably in the space rather than laboriously occupy it.

Also of note is the mixed-media fiber piece "Ahersma," by Joan Walecka. This crimson and silver valley posing as a blanket derives its energy from mud-like strips of fabric (which Walecka fashions to look like brush strokes) converging at the fiber puddle that forms in the upper third of the rectangle.

Unfortunately, the new artists here aren't taking many risks. Artspace, in its 15 years, has had a history of displaying the work of accomplished area artists, and is fast becoming a Raleigh institution. One wonders, however, if they are playing it too safe with skilled artists who produce quality work but do not try to push the confines of their medium. EndBlock


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