While there are certainly enjoyable artworks, including landscapes and portrait pieces, that don't attempt to convey a "deeper meaning," it is often allegory and symbolism that provide an intellectual challenge, and in many cases the most fun, in viewing contemporary art.
The current showing of various artists and media at the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs takes some of the guesswork out of deciding whether a particular work has a deeper meaning. Every piece in the Symbolism show, running until June 2, represents something other than what you see on the surface.
"This is what I love about art," said BAC Exhibitions Curator Heather Merriam. "Some art is purely form and function, but in this show, it's all about what lies beneath the surface."
Although the collection of offerings in Symbolism includes its share of the sort of religious metaphor most of us are used to interpreting, there are also a number of articles that provide a more challenging analysis for the viewer. An example of the latter category is Liz Szabo's "Three Sisters with a Sense of Fashion." In this piece, the artist presents a trio of ambiguous animal figures with mannequin bodies and wispy interlocking arms. Their "sense of fashion" involves garments meticulously made by Szabo out of small representations of caterpillars and worms varnished onto the mannequin bodies. A single caterpillar has made its escape from one of the figures and lies expectantly on the lacquered base.
"There is a lot to think about in this piece," said BAC office manager David Ball. "The garments have a fascinating texture, obsessive and time consuming, but in another way the figures are unstated and abstract." Questions of future transformation, born out of the larvae state of the garments, might also impress themselves upon the viewer of this finely crafted work, as well as the organic vs. made-made aspects of the piece.
Similarly, Rodney Wood's sculpture, titled "Carapace," presents a melding of organic and fabricated elements leaving the observer with a slightly uneasy feeling. A sandbox base and rusty rebar legs support a pale wood disc inscribed with alchemical symbols. In the center lies a well-worn metal dome with half-formed human figures constructed out of what appear to be rawhide strips. The assemblage seems to comment on the elemental and adolescent nature of human existence but is open to a multiplicity of plausible interpretations.
Jarrod Eastman contributes another haunting piece featuring a childlike figure with an open box in its chest. Inside the box a large crimson heart lies suspended. But Eastman's subject is not an ordinary child. The boy's grayish complexion and pensive attitude contribute to the impression that the child's intellectual makeup is less accessible than his open chest implies. The title of the piece, "Kool Aide," provides an additional, if cryptic, clue to the artist's intent, making this work one of the more challenging interpretations in the exhibit.
Relationships are a theme symbolically visited by a number of the artists in the show. Ken Riesterer provides an interesting lino-cut with religious symbols including biblical citations and angels. "Marriage" centers on a couple negotiating a choppy sea in their small boat while shielding a candle from the gusts of wind generated by demonic figures. As long as they can keep their flame burning, the wind behind them only serves to push them forward to a series of doors that stretch across the horizon of their common future. Riesterer's fascinating entry presents a maze of metaphors, fertile ground for the inquisitive viewer.
Several of the artists in the show present a less idealistic view of relationships. Deena Bennett, for example, contributes a once-lovely wedding cake charred by the flames of marital dissension. Titled "Great Expectations," Bennett's thought-provoking work uses the common metaphor of fire in a sense much different from Riesterer's lino-cut, while evoking the memorable image of Dickens' famous old maid, Miss Havisham.
Kim Sayers-Newlin revisits a theme common in her work with a teddy bear holding flowers and wearing a T-shirt silk-screened with the words "Honey of a Smile." Titled "Ineffective Coping Mechanisms," the message of the piece is evident from the back of the bear where blood gushes from a wound created by a tiny knife.
Less disturbing but equally thought-provoking are several works considering the theme of isolation. One of the best of these is Tom Leech's casein and acrylic on Japanese paper rendering, titled "Silo in Winter." Here the artist uses variations in color and texture to create a sense of solitude. A snowy background faintly inscribed with primary numbers adds to the sense of isolation in this compelling piece.
Another entry sharing the theme of separation is Ric Helstrom's evocative work titled "The Beggar." Here Helstrom captures feelings of aloneness engendered by social stratification with an inhabiting photograph of a Central American destitute seated against a stone wall.
On the lighter side, Perri Tyler contributes an interactive piece made up of a punching bag complete with boxing gloves and an invitation to "Let it Go." The bag itself presents an interesting collage of images upon which to take out frustrations. The viewer can chose from representations of everything from women with ideal bodies to an image of George W. Bush with a cartoonlike thought-box, symbolically devoid of content.
Other enjoyable and stimulating contributions to this show come from a mostly local artistic corps including Collins Redman, Michelle A. Vandepas, Gina Dupree, Ruth Burink, Tish Lacey Reed and Veronique Loggins. While every piece in this collection may not be as fascinating as the top entries, the show is extremely well presented and provides an afternoon of challenging analysis for anyone from casual observers to the more well-informed visitor.
While you're at the BAC, be sure to take in A Trained Eye, the exhibition of photographic work from Tim Davis in the Avenue Gallery. All of the photos in this show are derived from sides of railroad cars, but the coloration and texture of the photographs make it difficult to believe that a substantial amount of re-creation has not taken place. Nonetheless, Davis insists that the photos are not altered. The result is a varied exhibition of dramatic and sometimes awe-inspiring art. "These are intimate pictures which imply vast landscapes," said the BAC's David Ball. "They demonstrate that there is plenty to see in the world that we are not looking at."