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Hearts and Floggers 

Gertrude Stein once opined that a "rose is a rose is a rose." It's a line that has been quoted ever since, yet most of us know that a rose is more than a rose; it might be a sign, a scent, a color, a symbol, a herbal remedy or a culinary garnish. So much for flowers, but what about hearts? Thomas Mann, of Techno-Romantic jewelry fame, offers his own unique view in his Axis of Passion mixed-media show at LeMieux, and it's not your usual valentine.

Mann says, "The heart has always been a part of our human history, but until recently it was always a sexual symbol. It is only recently that it has become a romantic or love symbol." Hmmm, well, that explains a lot. Yet, there is no shortage of ambiguity here. Beyond mere sex, some of these items evoke memories of the maritime industry, which somehow gets all mixed in with gender, identity and even fish.

All of the above and more appear in Machina Amore, a big sheet-steel construction shaped roughly like a giant plumb bob in repose, or a reclining, semi-nude steam turbine. Look closely and it suggests an elongated heart with a Saturnian ring around the widest part. Somewhat phallic, it is also reminiscent of certain aspects of female anatomy, as well. It tapers to a ball, and rolls on its orbital ring along a circular metal track inscribed with phrases like "Arc of Love, Geometry of Sex, Angle of Want, Axis of Passion." Whew! -- no shortage of heavy breathing imbedded in all that heavy metal.

But that may be Mann's point. Also positioned within the track, yet dwarfed by the large piece, is a small piece that recalls a certain notorious, single-cell male organism. Here it seems to be busily slithering off to meet a nice female cell, someplace cozy. So there you have it; beneath the industrial facade, primitive organisms perambulate the primal ooze.

Other metal sculptures suggest fish or fin shapes, which may or may not be stretching a point, but which are all fabricated along the lines of his jewelry, yet on a far larger scale. Almost like metal collages comprised of odd shapes and forms, they hark to Mann's original Techno-Romantic modus of cobbling jewelry out of salvaged precision machine parts. Although these works are custom fabricated according to his specifications, that same mix 'n' match sensibility remains pervasive throughout, especially in his wall-mounted Riddle Quilt, a large, mixed-media installation. Collaged from metal cut-out panels and lit from behind, it's a smorgasbord of signs and symbols that, like an adjacent gallery full of smaller stand-alone pieces, appear familiar for reasons other than sex-ed class.

It is eerie, but look again at Riddle Quilt and -- yes, it's like a testosterone-charged, heavy metal specter of Ida Kohlmeyer! Or at least, her old "Semiotic" series of paintings that featured similar arrangements of not dissimilar signs and symbols. Wow! That was unexpected. Not that anybody's copping anybody else, but curious things can happen when little gets big -- which seems to be what a lot of this dramatic and rather experimental show is all about.

On the other hand, little gets even littler down the street at Marguerite Oestreicher, in Orren Kickliter's first solo exhibit. What does one make of a show where many of the prints are no bigger than postage stamps, and even the paintings are barely bigger than manila envelopes? The perhaps autobiographical -- compressed, somewhat manic, gestural depictions of a male figure, typically either zoned out in headphones or freaked out in postures of torment like captured Taliban prisoners -- offer few clues. Much of this, like Mann's show, calls attention to technique, and Kickliter is a good craftsman. But fine art is no different from commercial art if technique is all we see, so the problem here is to divine what this skilled 30-year-old is up to besides evoking the German expressionists, whose angst he reprises. What is missing is the psychic depth that even the littlest pictures can open up for us when they truly resonate. Another world may indeed be lurking in there, somewhere, but what lies on the other side of this particular looking glass remains elusive, at least for now.

click to enlarge Thomas Mann maintains a mix 'n' match sensibility throughout his Axis of Passion show, particularly in the smorgasbord that is the wall-mounted Riddle Quilt.
  • Thomas Mann maintains a mix 'n' match sensibility throughout his Axis of Passion show, particularly in the smorgasbord that is the wall-mounted Riddle Quilt.
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