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Mix-and-match metaphors
Evocative new works by Jane Calvin and Lilla Samson

While the annual student exhibition is taking place in the Main Gallery at the University of Rhode Island, two neighboring shows in the Fine Arts Center are setting high standards for comparison. Photographs by Jane Calvin and drawings and paintings by Lilla Samson impressively demonstrate what can be accomplished in their mediums.

Jane Calvin’s "Tableaux Vivants: Photographs" (through May 10) makes stepping into the Photography Gallery a dazzling experience — 20 densely packed prints fill the small room. Each colorful assemblage of images floats against a black background, like in some of the similarly playful surrealism of Joan Miro. Calvin’s juxtapositions and tensions often are as pleasantly jarring: a blue neon-sign cocktail glass across from a white-line drawing of a film-noir shooting; an angry Olive Oyl (from the Popeye cartoons) across from a close-up of a shadowy shouting woman.

Tableaux vivants were late 19th-century performance art for the low-brow parlor crowd. People would costume in togas or other period dress and remain still while viewers admired the "living picture" that simulated a famous painting. Calvin creates her photographs by assembling their elements in her studio, sometimes projecting images onto them, rather than in her computer. She often uses text, but to decorate and evoke rather than make explicit statements, whether it is cursive writing, type, or signage that is subliminally thrumming away at us.

Calvin’s method isn’t very evident in her results. We’re not talking anything so simple as arranging Ken and Barbie dolls in domestic scenes. The exhibition as a whole is much more satisfying than any single photograph there, because images recur and themes emerge. Romance, female self-image, and permutations of such pop up frequently. Porcelain figurines gaze into each others’ eyes in several instances. In most of the works, a piece of female apparel dangles prominently, a surrogate for the woman not in it. "Correlations" (2003) could be considered as Calvin’s nexus piece, bringing these elements together. In it, a sketched boy with an oversized pencil looks up toward the drawing of an older girl leaning toward him in a see-through dress, two real dresses suspended between them. Words in various fonts fill the picture, with "flesh" and "devouring" each repeated more than once.

Calvin has stated: "I make photographs — I don’t take them." With other artists, the technique of photographing an installation or a posed scene varies in content as widely as Spencer Tunick’s masses of nudes in public settings, Cindy Sherman’s costumed scenario self-portraits, and even William Wegman’s trivial puppy pictures. Calvin’s penchant for mixing and matching for metaphorical effect also puts her in the tradition of three-dimensional artists such as Joseph Cornell and his evocative boxes and, as she has acknowledged, Sandy Skoglund, whose elaborate surreal scenes are as complex as on a sound stage.

The underlying — or at least recurring theme — of Calvin’s work is that of the continuum of sexual attraction, desire, and frustration. As her tough-guy film noir motif epitomizes, to regard women primarily as objects of sexual pleasure has unpleasant consequences. (Calvin has whimsical fun here and there, using a statuette of a show-off harlequin doing a hand stand.) Her last word on that is "Who’s Asking?" (2000). "I — think I broke his neck" is in a cartoon speech balloon across from a Howdy Doody ventriloquist dummy, which is slumped and will no longer trouble Princess Summerfall Winterspring.

Another exhibition of interest is in the nearby Corridor Gallery. "Playing To an Empty House," paintings and drawings by Lilla Samson, runs through April 24. As visionary poet William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, Samson has found intricate and beautiful worlds in southern Rhode Island intertidal zones. In a posted statement Samson quotes the title’s source, nature writer Annie Dillard, who wrote: "We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed . . . otherwise creation would be playing to an empty house."

The visual wonders she unfolds for us are on the micro scale, marine flora and fauna that she enlarges in her drawings to massive proportions. In the six large charcoal drawings, the URI art instructor details the intricate forms of diatoms and presents profuse bouquets of phytoplankton, trumpet shapes blossoming like so many microscopic morning glories. Her paintings on wood or paper, on the other hand, are small, and most are unidentifiable as anything but abstractions. Gold-leaf surrounding the three paintings that are on paper may signal sunlight reflecting on water, but also serves to celebrate the subject matter.

In the Main Gallery through May 10 is "The Annual Juried Student Exhibition," which is displaying some 50 works, from drawings to paintings to digital media.

Issue Date: April 18 - 21, 2005
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