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A Durham Arts Council show exemplifies the quality work public galleries can offer

Thoughtful, well-wrought works by a satisfying cross-section of local artists: The shows currently on view at the Durham Arts Council, in both the Durham Art Guild and the Allenton and Semans galleries housed there, optimally argue the purpose and benefit of public venues in bringing worthy art offerings to the public's attention.

Like Artspace in Raleigh or the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, the Council's spaces operate by annual juries in which art professionals choose shows for the upcoming year, ensuring quality control and standards for artworks. Often enough, the promise of such spaces is left unmet. But under the best of circumstances, these settings offer artists room to unfurl their ideas.

This month features five artists I am familiar with and two who are new to me. In the case of the known artists, my understanding of their works was expanded and tantalizing directions were glimpsed. In the case of the new artists, I discerned risk-taking in genres less accustomed to such approaches.

click to enlarge A collection of wool hats created by Emily Mills Reed - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
The Allenton Gallery features a show titled "Wearable Art," with jewelry by Erica Stankwytch Bailey and fiber by Emily Mills Reed. Reed knits labor-intensive, felted caps of merino wool. With designs based on the tightly-fitted, chin-strapped swimcaps of the 1920s, she incorporates marine themes in this grouping titled A Day at the Beach. The raised white woolen ropes of "Brain Coral/Thinking Cap" cleverly mimic the labyrinthine meanderings of both the coral and cerebellum, turning anatomy inside-out. On other hats, bright colors and undine forms, some wildly dripping, draping and curling off the basic form, suggest the variety, profusion and movement of underwater life, if not human coiffures themselves.

Beneath these otherwise whimsical works lies a deeper purpose. Inspired by the personal stories of her grandmothers' and mother's own bouts with cancer, they are her attempt to deal with addressing the most visible signifier of chemotherapy: hair loss. Thus these soft, knitted forms become both protective helmet and hair, as in "Medusa," where turquoise blue ringlets are beguiling yet a bit menacing.

Bailey designs in metal jewelry, yet uses her medium to explore women's histories and pay homage to crafts traditionally associated with women as translated into metal work, such as her necklace of crocheted copper coils. She presents historic costume as a series of copper enameled cut-out paper dolls, replete with multiple, changeable outfits, and gets at our unease with our own bodies with "Woman Defined with arms and shoes," a headless, armless woman's torso on a dressing form, a pile of tiny shoes beneath her slip's hem, a displaced arm lying in the case like a spare, interchangeable part. "Elegant Defense," a striking neck collar of sterling silver prongs and freshwater pearls, curls its barbs outward in an almost weapon-like gesture.

In the galleries of the Durham Art Guild just beyond the Allenton Gallery lobby, four quadrants are devoted to as many artists whose combined works hold up separately yet interrelate coherently and intriguingly around the concerns of abstraction and surface articulation.

Jim Lux's sculptural vase forms are dramatically clustered on pedestals of varying heights in the center of his space, creating a pleasing architectonic structure of spherical and columnar shapes. Lux has been working in generous rounded forms, while the slender, tall forms have been recently introduced. All are made in smoked earthenware, with colored slips, mica and wax providing surface finish. "Sequestering it Underground" typifies the newest forms, with its pale blue and lilac surface mottled with the soft brown marks of smoke firing and delicate trails of starry mica spilling down its sides, evoking dusk atmospheres.

Margie Stewart is known for her lush, painterly still lifes. Here, she continues refining and reducing recognizable elements of her subjects. Scattered geometric suggestions on a low horizon beneath broad expanses of color set the stage for bravura brushwork. "Bottles, Boxes, Evening" and "Bottles, Boxes, Morning" suggest a Monet-like exercise of tackling the same subject at different times in the day, or Italian painter Giorgio Morandi's penchant for reinteration of a constant theme. Changing light in each painting--the ruby reds and glowing oranges of "Evening" and the glinting white-yellows of "Morning"--satisfy the yen of any colorist.

Ashlyn Browning explores marks on paper, charting trails of changing materials and gestures, from the gathered soft gray curves emerging from blank paper as if from snow in "Branches," to the heavier, calligraphic oil pastel energetically scrawled over a grayed ground in "Weighted." Informed by Mark Tobey's ghostly all-over marks, Cy Twombly's tangled scribbles and the elegance of Asian calligraphy, Browning forges her own linear armature. The color red blares insistently over her usual monochromes in "This Conflict," and in "Too Full to Sustain," a collaged, printed reference to the USA appears on a page violated with a ripped-out gouge on its uppermost edge.

Browning exercises an impulse to break out of the frame and the field of paper by exhibiting torn fragments of drawings held by pushpins, some arranged in a grid. An interesting and courageous leap, it has not yet arrived at full fruition.

click to enlarge Another Damn Decider by Charles Linwood Hart - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
Charles Linwood Hart displays mixed media collages, which unlike his previous larger-scale paper collages with which I was familiar, incorporate painting. Most successful are smaller color fields split open by fragments of revealed text, as in "CABX4 Dream, The Third Graft," or "The First Cut," which viscerally splits the picture plane with a column of text rising like a powerful plant shoot from the ground.

Upstairs in the Semans Gallery, Marilyn Charlat Dix spins tried and true territory. Mining her mother's old family photographs, in which certain people were unable to be identified, Dix fashions imaginary narratives with the aid of computer scans, combining images that might not have been related originally.

Her mixed media prints on paper are fine, but the works leap to unexpected life in another dimension of her devising. Printed onto translucent acrylic skins mounted over hand-wrought, curvilinear metal frames, images are layered back to front, allowing light to pass through the frame and the two sets of images to influence one another in a shadowy dialogue. The acrylic material itself has a palpable, skin-like quality, and embedded here and there with delicate strands of thread, it further advances notions of our mysterious human connections.

I left the building pleased to be checking in on progressing careers, and buoyed by the innovative interpretations I discovered. I felt lucky in art.

The Durham Arts Council is located at 120 Morris St. and is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The exhibits at the Allenton and Semans galleries run through June 30, and the Durham Arts Guild exhibit runs through July 9. Call 560-ARTS or visit for more information.

  • A Durham Arts Council show exemplifies the quality work public galleries can offer

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