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Girl Talk 

Amazing what a difference a day makes. OK -- a few days -- that's about how long it takes to pull down one show and put up another, and nowhere was the contrast more striking than at the Stern, where the impersonal techno facades of the all-male Optical Optimism show gave way to the soft skin and quivering enigmas of Monica Zeringue's new paintings. Where the former was very hard edged and very Chelsea, Zeringue's stuff is far more vulnerable, obsessive and rather New Orleans, if not European, in tone.

Her gorgeously painted canvases never fail to remind me of someone who never got over attending Catholic girls' schools, but that's not as parochial as it sounds. The tension between freedom and repression is universal, and Zeringue's imagery is largely surreal and symbolic. Seek is a largish oil on burlap painting with a seated nude holding something in her lap: a bird cage covered with a red shroud with the word "See" stitched into it. The woman is sleek and statuesque but her head is shrouded with a red cloth with the word "Seek" embroidered on it. Around her flutters a bevy of pale butterflies, and the whole scene has a sort of surreal Fellini movie flashback quality to it. The analogy is clear enough: In order to seek, one must see, but to see clearly is not always as easy as it sounds.

The Mechanics of Forward Flight is similar in that it's a large (4'x5') oil on burlap canvas. Here a solidly constructed redhead stands nude before a tall mirror with arms outstretched like wings. As she examines her reflection, mosquito hawks hover around the mirror. A bas relief on the wall behind her is of birds in flight, while on a red velvet pillow below lies the body of a dead sparrow, and once again there's that surreal dreamlike quality that keeps her metaphors more mysterious than labored. The rest of the show is no less poetic. Fly, a jar of flies resting on a red tasseled pillow, is beautifully painted and vaguely sinister, while a mixed-media triptych features little doll dresses with sleeves outstretched, all dramatically bound by hefty stitches to the ruddy burlap backing.

Zeringue's subjects, typically painted in the stark light and reductive compositions of Spanish still life scenes, appear to navigate a nether world between the ties that bind and an urge to fly free, between their strict inner nun and the daydreams of their inner schoolgirl. Such tight adherence to a theme could become monotonous, and it's a tribute to her sheer lucidity of vision and painterly virtuosity that it never does.

No less feminine is the work of Kathleen Holmes, whose Art Redressé show at Sylvia Schmidt features her rather dreamlike paintings and sculpture. The paintings are mostly impressionistic landscapes partially overlaid with her crocheted tapestries. Deer Lake is emblematic, a misty lake scene with amorphous trees that appear almost on the verge of evaporating like a mirage if not for the crocheted tapestry of a deer hovering in the sky like a Southern Gothic shroud that somehow ties it all together. Born in Monroe, raised in the South and exhibited all over, Holmes uses homespun Southern imagery to create work that resonates widely.

Even so, I found her mixed-media sculpture more intriguing. Most feature a shaped female form in various treatments and guises. Working Girl, the eye-catching piece seen on the cover of the Art for Art's Sake issue of Gambit Weekly, features a kind of tapestry dress opening up to a maze of gears. Peering out from an armored tunic above are a pair of delicate renaissance-looking eyes where the chest would be, and it's disconcerting because its convincing formal "rightness" makes for such a contrast to its anatomical incorrectness. Its a fine exercise in dissociation in the classical surrealist manner. (And hopefully not a harbinger of what's to come if gene splicing and genetically modified food continue on their relentless march!)

The rest employ similar methods, and, as with Zeringue, there is this pervasive sense of the contrast between the hardness of outer forms (traditions, ties, responsibilities) and the vulnerability of feelings, dreams and the imagination. The themes may be Southern and feminine, but the sensibilities know no gender or regional boundaries.

click to enlarge The imagery that Monica Zeringue uses to convey the tension between freedom and repression is surreal and symbolic, as she shows in the oil-on-burlap painting Seek.
  • The imagery that Monica Zeringue uses to convey the tension between freedom and repression is surreal and symbolic, as she shows in the oil-on-burlap painting Seek.
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