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March 22 - May 3, 2008 at Bandini Art, Culver City

by Andy Brumer

The metaphor of art as “evanescence” is trickily oxymoronic, because while artists express feelings and thoughts that are by nature fleeting, they do so via objects created to last. The press material accompanying this two artists exhibition, titled “Absence and Elsewhere” and featuring the art of Melinda Smith Altshuler and Shauna Peck, speaks of the evanescent quality of both bodies of work, and rightfully so. Both women respond to poet Wallace Stevens’ mandate that artists “make the visible a little hard to see.”

Melinda Smith Altshuler, "Use Unbalance
Wisely", 2006-7, teabag paper, acrylic
paint medium, 48” x 48”.

Melinda Smith Altshuler, "The Interval
Between", 2007, metal, acrylic paint
medium, teabag paper, 17” x 17” x 7”.

Smith Altshuler’s work plays with the idea of permanence and what’s passing--the “elsewhere” into which the “absence” of the show’s title mysteriously and chronically dissolves--in deftly crafted painted sculptures and assemblages. Some of the latter ingeniously use old teabags, whose stained paper the artist collages, composes and manipulates to various expressive ends. In “Use Unbalance Wisely,” for example, a quilted outer block of teabags both frames and supports an inner square Smith Altshuler made from what she describes as a heavily textured acrylic paint medium. Just as light pours diaphanously through the porous fragile teabag papers, it also seems to reflect back off of the denser acrylic core, and this inward/outward rhythm, suggestive of breathing, alludes to a tenuous quality of balance suggested by the show’s title. In other pieces, equally delicate and durable, the teabags become surfaces for photo etchings. “Diaphanous Dwelling,” for example, presents the image of a decaying house, whose crumbling walls become corridors for the wind.

“The Interval Between,” a sculptural installation, is constructed from the metal frame of a discarded rectangular box whose heavily textured panels the artist made from the same acrylic paint medium. An ordinary house light hangs directly above the box, and the light penetrating through it fills the negative space of the empty container with the spiritualized equivalent of, well. . .nothing.

At once formal and lyrical, all of the work in this show points to an experienced artist working joyfully in a confident and mature voice.

Shauna Peck’s paintings also display a luxurious materiality that contains and honors the mystery of life’s persistent impermanence. In several works the artist’s encaustic medium renders, captures and subsumes in turn the fossil-like image of a skeletal fragment. This reads as the silhouetted shape of a bird, and a dark, almost diagrammatic view of a human being’s internal organs.

In like tone, the wax paint of “Blue Basin” seems to suspend the skeleton of what might be a man or woman’s pelvis, the bones splayed wide like a butterfly that wants to fly away through its sky of paint. One could also read the image as a mask, with the symmetrically positioned holes in the hipbones serving as eye sockets.

In other landscape paintings Peck employs a symbolist’s palette, whose earthy iridescent tones and colors heighten the work’s emotions and transport the imagery out of literal nature and into the mind’s eye of dreams. One such work, “Enchanted Forest,” positions a fractured purple structure resembling an obelisk or an inverted stalactite rising from a green field. It intersects at a horizon line with a sky of painterly pink clouds. Faintly rendered rows of crosses (which more benignly considered might be telephone poles) recede in the distance, and establish a “V” formation with this purple mass. Suddenly it reads as an ominously cloaked figure, which leads a posse one wouldn’t want to encounter anywhere but in a painting. It’s a mesmerizing and powerful work, as is the sculpture “Pelvis,” in which Peck casts the body’s bones in bronze mounted on a two-tiered encaustic pedestal.

Shauna Peck, "Pelvis", 2005, encaustic,
cast bronze, salt, 12 x 12 x 12”.

Shauna Peck, "Blue Basin",
2005, encaustic, 32 x 45”.

Shauna Peck, "Enchanted Forest",
2007, encaustic, 42 x 73”.

The recurring pelvis form also appears straddling a little mound of white salt. In addition to supplying a refreshing bright visual touch, the crystalline stuff  also introduces an array of associations, which Peck enumerates in an artist’s statement, which reads in part:

“Homer called salt the divine substance. Plato described salt as especially dear to the gods. The word salacious originates from the word salt. Salt may be associated with longevity and permanence. . .The only other element as important to sustain life is water.”