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Sweet Dreams 

Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum realizes a dream with a new show exploring the unconscious--and inaugurating its new space

Walking into the main gallery at the Raleigh Contemporary Art Museum to view its current show, some kind of dream, visitors immediately encounter Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota's brilliant and encompassing work, "During Sleep," looming like a jungle in the background. The Berlin-based artist has woven 120 pounds of black yarn around and between 40 beds deaccessioned from Dorothea Dix Hospital--an acquisition that gained a lurid significance when Shiota found a pill lodged in a nook of one of the beds. The yarn forms a dense web from floor to rafters, where institutional spotlights hang, giving the yarn a plastic sheen and sharpening the contrast between it and the bleached-white bedsheets. Cascading over the beds and tangling upon itself, the network of string conjures a sense of serene mystery, alluding perhaps to the blurred line between consciousness and unconsciousness.

"I feel the dream as reality," said Shiota during the show's opening. The comment was meant to illustrate how her work elaborated the theme of the exhibition, but her words could just as easily serve to describe the opening of the museum in its new, permanent location.

From its inception in 1983 as the City Gallery of Contemporary Art, the people behind what is now Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) have nurtured a broad definition of art in the local community. When the gallery was forced to close its doors in 1998 due to lack of public funding, director Denise Dickens set up shop in an office on Fayetteville Street Mall, and from there organized and executed exhibitions in borrowed or temporarily available space around the downtown area.

Then three years ago, as the result of an extensive capital campaign that raised $650,000--a sizable portion of which came from small donations from individual members of the community--the City Gallery of Contemporary Art realized a long-sought dream by purchasing a building and redefining itself as a museum. Now, according to its mission statement, CAM plans to bring local artists together with those from all over the world in revolving exhibitions aimed at "exploring aesthetic, cultural and ideological issues." Director Denise Dickens says she would like CAM to exist not only as a museum but as an integral part of the downtown community, working with businesses and the public to create a thriving cultural center in Raleigh's warehouse district.

Curator Raphaela Platow, who has worked for galleries in Berlin and Munich and with the Venice Biennale before moving to Raleigh with her husband in 1999, conceived Art in Transition, an exhibition in three separately themed parts, as a way of tracing CAM's move into its new space. The first part took place last year in a rented space off Glenwood South. The second and current part is on view now in the new, soon-to-be-renovated building. The third part will occur, pending a $1.2 million combined grant from the City of Raleigh and Wake County, in about 18 months, when renovations are due to be completed.

Bringing her knowledge of international art to the table, Platow began planning the series by studying the museum's archives on area artists, then touring local studios to see what Triangle artists were currently producing. The theme for Art in Transition II grew out of her meetings with the artists and their expressed interest in studying dreams.

The result is an exhibition, presenting work by six North Carolina artists alongside work by five artists from different parts of the world, that's curiously devoid of stand-alone paintings or drawings. It's as though CAM is attempting to define contemporary art against these traditional modes of expression, as opposed to brokering a marriage of the two. Admittedly, this reflects the state of contemporary art today, as evidenced by the current Whitney Biennial in New York, in which conceptual art and video installation predominate; and shows that attempt to present a marriage of new and traditional forms can sometimes come off like the shotgun variety. Still, contemporary painting and drawing thrives, and to present an exhibition containing neither doesn't accurately reflect 21st-century artistic endeavors.

The ground floor of CAM currently houses one room of Copenhagen artist Franz Jacobi's transient "dreamspaces," which is continued upstairs, next to the clever and humorous work of Raleigh artist Michael Salter. Jacobi's themes range from the classic (star-crossed love) to the contemporary (displacement) to the clichéd (voyeurism). His execution lacks the profundity that conceptual art, in order to be defined by both terms in the phrase, demands. His contact paper spider webs, for instance, call to mind a juvenile haunted house setting; and while it's one thing to recreate the blue glow of a television at night through a city apartment window, it's quite another to do it in such a way that makes us think.

Much of Salter's work here, spanning four rooms and covering the walls of a hallway, is in miniature. In one room, Salter has rigged a hi-fi receiver to an upright speaker. The stereo is set to a weak signal, and a human figurine bounces haplessly around the speaker foam at the mercy of the rattling static. By working in miniature, Salter emphasizes the environment and its inevitable effect on the assimilative nature of human awareness.

On the right, at the foot of the stairs leading into the museum's basement, is the sublime work in progress of Rougemont artist David Solow. Solow has actually recreated the physical experience of being asleep and dreaming. Stepping into the room, visitors are at once engulfed in darkness disturbed only by the light from a video projector and a bright glow emanating from a crack between the floor and walls along the room's periphery, symbolizing the constant stream of consciousness. The central focus of the room, representing the dream, is a projected image, reflected numerous times, suggesting the vastness of the unconscious mind.

Hailing from São Paulo, Brazil, Sandra Cinto has washed a room in pale green, hung wooden light bulbs at various heights, and scattered the floor with bulb-shaped glass bubbles intended to imply that they were blown from a circle mounted high on one wall. A carved wooden pole stands in one quarter of the room, while a bed frame seems to materialize out of the floor on the left side. On the walls and ceiling, as well as on the pole, Cinto has created intricate, circular ball-point pen drawings depicting, among other things, undulatory bridges, and serving as virtual peepholes out from the monochromatic, surrealist environment, into myriad confusion.

Raleigh artist Sally Van Gorder recalls her own childhood in her mesmerizing installation, "I used to share a room with my sister Sarah Bernhardt." Two beds, illuminated from behind and mounted on a wall at the end of a long room, serve as screens for dual images projected on each of them. Yellow in color like the faded pages of a family album, the light from the images sparkles on randomly applied plastic buttons, lending the essence of fantasy to the work. The subjects in Van Gorder's video installation possess mythopoeic personas, and inhabit a kind of pseudo-fable, complete with the sounds of the lullaby "Goodnight Sweetheart," from an old children's record.

This is just a sampling of the installations currently on view at CAM, which constitute fresh explorations into a subject that, since the publication in 1900 of Freud's seminal work On Dreams, has struggled against becoming an art-world cliché. By contrast, CAM has successfully brought local and international artists together under one roof to explore this topic in the context of serious contemporary art--a proposal unprecedented in North Carolina's museums. EndBlock

More by Nathan Lupo

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