If you were trying to select an off-putting name for an exhibition of fine art, you could scarcely do better than the title An Exquisite Corpse. Fortunately, rather than the lewdly decorated cadaver images conjured up by the show title, viewers are treated to a collage of installation work from eight of the best local artists.
According to gallery notes, the dadaist term "exquisite corpse" actually refers to a collaborative work in which the artists have only a vague idea of what the others are doing. And, as long as we're discussing terminology, installations are generally site-specific works that create a kind of environment and involve the viewer in some way.
The small gallery at Pikes Peak provides a space not quite unique enough to allow for a lot of artistic interaction with the site itself. But that has not stopped the Exquisite Corpse artists from creating an extraordinarily enjoyable assemblage of innovative and contemporary work. Michael Cellan, Lisa Chicoyne, Patricia Heath, Kim Sayers-Newlin, Betty Atherton, George Ericson, Barbara Resch and Elizabeth Szabo have each turned their allotted space in the gallery into a fascinating tableau of meaning and esthetic.
Indeed, this is one of the rare exhibitions where the quality of work is uniformly high, each artist's piece contributing both collectively and in its own right. There is great diversity among the contributions to the show, and there are interesting connections between the pieces that must have developed as the artists were working in their shared space, apparently up to the last minutes before the opening last Friday.
One of the most intriguing contributions is Lisa Chicoyne's mixed media piece titled "Shroud." Here, square shafts of starched cheese-cloth-looking material hang from ceiling to floor, partially concealing their content. Shadowy objects inside give an impression of huge dried peppers, although the viewer never gets a chance to make a positive identification and is left to speculate. Do the pieces comment on the difficulty of gauging the possibilities of life after death? Rich in its simplicity, Chicoyne's entry leaves the viewer wondering why her idea has not been implemented before.
Michael Cellan's playful mixed media work, "Passing Through" incorporates a jumble of multi-colored cardboard frames painted by Joe Kniss. Cardboard jetstreams left by paper airplanes mark a varied course of flight that seems to zip through the maze created by the frames. The effect is one of frenetic activity caught in a snapshot of time.
In one corner, George Ericson's wood sculpture, "Displacement #2," uses deteriorated railroad ties and young, roughly hewn tree branches to create an interesting dichotomy of forms. Ericson has hung each branch on end with the longest in the middle and progressively shorter sticks emanating toward the outer reaches of the piece. The railroad ties are piled into a campfire shape reaching up towards the center of the hanging portion, creating a modified hourglass shape and an oddly satisfying juxtaposition of textures. Here, as with Chicoyne's entry, less is more as outer simplicity gives way to deeper layers of meaning.
On the other end of the simplicity spectrum are contributions from Kim Sayers-Newlin and Patricia Heath. Sayers-Newlin's "Grids" is a time-consuming arrangement of packing materials into a dream-like compartmentalization of human existence. Tiny items including everything from doll heads and action figures to pine cones and whiskbrooms make this an obsessive and detailed collage of life.
Heath's "A Former Self" uses cloth walls to create a neutral-colored enclosure for the interior of her piece, restricting the viewer to glimpses of the inside through the corners of the box or sheer windows sharply outlined in little girl forms. The sheets are decorated with cookie cutter, mostly featureless, female forms which Heath says comment "on cultural values of conformity and mass production." Inside, similar shapes hang in various degrees of wholeness and solidity, speaking, according to the artist's statement, to the tentative qualities of memory and "its relationship to the identity of the former self." One is impressed however, with the continuity of the outside of the piece, representing the present, and the more populated but consistently-colored and formed center of the piece, perhaps suggesting the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Another interesting feature of the show as a whole lies in the way the artists have related their works to the other pieces in the collection. For example, Cellan's cardboard frames seem to carry over into "Reading Room," a neighboring installation by Barbara Resch. The jetstream lines translate into Resch's work as well, helping to reconcile the separateness of each artist's vision with the closeness of the space.
Recurrent themes in the pieces also create a sense of oneness while providing a whimsical aspect to otherwise serious work, and this sharing of concepts goes a long way toward creating a unity among the disparate works that is impressive in the constricted space which these artists share.
The uniformity of the quality of An Exquisite Corpse, together with the diversity of artistic vision and the playfulness of the efforts to connect the work, make this show one not to miss.