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Forest for the Trees 

Sally Heller has a thing for the byproducts of modern life in general and pop culture in particular. In her work to date, she has typically taken such ephemeral items as pipe cleaners, fake fingernails, Whiffle balls, those little plastic google eyes found in children's toys as well as yellow caution tape and orange plastic safety netting and crafted them into objects ranging from small collages to room-size installations. Her pieces are clever in ways that belie their labor intensive origins as she transforms all those rarely noticed little things that make the cogs of civilization go 'round into chic and whimsical commentaries on life in a throw-away society.

Unlike the pop artists of the past, who almost exclusively celebrated the sensational banality of modern life, Heller has more recently created installations that hark to the natural world of trees and wetlands, the kinds of places that are now all the more valuable for being so imperiled. Of course, pop artists don't change their polka dots overnight, so in Heller's hands even these more bucolic pieces are made from those ephemeral artifacts of pop culture with which she is so closely identified. In her more recent installations, it was that contrast between our notion of the forest as a place of primeval beauty and the sheer banality of Heller's materials that made for a provocative statement in its own right. In this Up-Rooted installation, however, the tone is subtly but distinctly different. What we have here is an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of environment that in some ways transcends the materials it is made from. Rather than jarring us with a forest of plastic junk, Up-Rooted transforms such things into a fairy kingdom, an enchanted, if still ironic, swamp of the imagination, a place of color and whimsy.

Color and whimsy are words that also aptly describe the prints on the wall, big photographic C-prints under plexiglass that come across as colorful abstract compositions reflecting Heller's prosaic materials without revealing much of their context, or even the medium from which they were made. Although these images are photographic in origin, their colors are unusually luminous owing to some new and exotic formulations in photo chemistry. Their generally dreamlike quality is also partly the result of being reflections photographed in silver mylar rather than actual photographs of the installation itself. The result is, literally, a Through-the-Looking-Glass sort of ambience as Heller's usual plastic beads, pipe cleaners, Whiffle balls and plastic netting turn dadaistic and surreal on us, mimicking the polymorphous painterly squiggles or melting, shape-shifting forms of a Joan Miro or Salvador Dali, transforming recycled pop ephemera back into a realm of aesthetic historicity. All in all, these works mark a startlingly buoyant new twist on established aesthetic themes.

Meanwhile, the Arthur Roger Project Gallery features an unusual student show. Made up of work by recent graduates of the New York School of Visual Arts, it's unusual not so much for the work itself, but because it was curated by Dan Cameron. He's the Contemporary Arts Center's new curator and instigator of Prospect1, the upcoming international New Orleans Biennial, so one might reasonably wonder if it offers any sort of insight into his curatorial vision. But, alas, what it really resembles most is a graduate student art show, although a somewhat interesting one with admirable freshness of vision and low-budget verve. Stylistically, it covers the waterfront, from vaguely Duchampian readymades to video and animation as well as paint on canvas. Since nothing is ever new anymore, we settle for the striking, and here Lara Star Martini's plexiglass pigeonhole grid of 24 Vices, an assortment of readymades such as packs of cigarettes and condoms, makes for a bold autobiographical statement. Lai Cung Poon's Tree Project video of a pregnant woman transforming into a tree is a grandly surreal take on the Daphne and Apollo myth, but there are really too many pieces to mention. Even so, it may be noteworthy that the overall tone is so gritty and visceral -- qualities that once characterized Manhattan itself before it became gentrified almost beyond recognition.

click to enlarge In Sally Heller's prints, everyday objects are transformed - into a realm of painterly surrealism.
  • In Sally Heller's prints, everyday objects are transformed into a realm of painterly surrealism.
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