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Fetishes, Miracles and History 

On the invitation it's called New Work, but international art star Claudia DeMonte's new mixed-media sculpture and prints are actually a continuation of her ongoing Female Fetishes series. No, this has nothing to do with handcuffs or black leather; au contraire, DeMonte uses the term anthropologically. For instance, go to the St. Roch Chapel and what do you see? Off to the side is a room filled with votive offerings, typically plaster casts of body parts including hands, feet, breasts and other appendages, all placed there amid prayers for obtaining miracle cures. Anthropologists in tribal Africa deemed similarly magical objects with similar purposes "fetishes," but in Latin America they are called "milagros," or miracles, in a kind of Hispanic Catholic version of the same thing.

DeMonte grew up in an Italian Catholic household in Queens, and her Fetishes are based not on body parts but rather on common domestic items such as tea kettles, handbags and perfume bottles, actual-size objects associated with women's roles. Carved from wood and painted black, they appear encrusted with cast pewter medallions, or "milagros," nailed all over each piece, giving them an aura somewhere between chain mail and the magical fetishes of tribal societies. Actually, those pewter medallions are not unlike the charms on charm bracelets, taking the form of hearts, toasters, high-heel shoes and the like. And, in fact, charm bracelets can be seen as a form of female fetish still commonplace in contemporary life.

Similar approaches appear in her prints. Mano Dei Miracoli is an outline of a hand made up of pewter medallions, in a modern update of the old Hand of Power talisman. It's all about magic, and perhaps DeMonte is attempting to put the magic back into the routine side of women's lives -- their not-quite-seamless roles as mother, lover and homemaker. Her attempts to engage women all over the world are ambitious yet can yield unexpected results, such as the time she asked Tibetan women to help her sew those pewter milagros onto fabric only to find out that most had never seen a toaster or high-heeled shoes before, so the items meant nothing to them. Still, DeMonte's Fetishes are probably best viewed as process art, part of an interactive endeavor rather than simply taken on their merits as visually pretty objects.

Bosnian artist Tanja Softic's prints and paintings bring her own unique perspective to questions of life and death, nature and shelter, themes that became personal to her as her hometown -- and home -- were bombed into oblivion during the Balkan upheavals of the recent past. Her personal belongings and records were lost, and now her art reflects a symbolic record of her sensibilities rendered in ink, paint and canvas.

Enigmatic and collage-like, Softic's work juxtaposes pieces of the natural world with precision renderings of the man-made environment, leaving it to the viewer to make the connections. Like Claudia DeMonte, Softic employs a recurring lexicon of forms, both organic and man made. For instance, History of Love, a large etching/mezzotint, is an iconic assortment of schematic bones, buds, perfume bottles, spider lilies and distillation flasks, all arranged diagrammatically on a flat field. The title is ironic, yet the assorted circumstantial evidence is convincing enough in its insinuation that love is an alchemy of hormonal and evolutionary impulses (as well as more personal things).

The paintings follow similar strategies. Draco is a painting of something like a vastly oversized ginseng root juxtaposed with a sky chart of a minor constellation and a panel of baroque frou-frou in the form of delicately rendered botanical ornamentation. Softic says her work suggests "the impossible attempt to quantify the most profound experiences and concepts of human existence," adding that she explores "the porous border between the intellect and the senses ... the territory between structure and ornament, instrument and body, cell and bloom." All of which seemingly explain why her imagery seems as pointedly disjointed as it does, as well as why it may appeal to women more readily than men. After all, when the times are out of joint, it is often left to the women to put the pieces back together again.

click to enlarge Helping hand: Claudia DeMonte's Mano Dei - Miracoli could be perceived as an attempt to - put the magic back into the routine side of women's - lives.
  • Helping hand: Claudia DeMonte's Mano Dei Miracoli could be perceived as an attempt to put the magic back into the routine side of women's lives.
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