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Multiples Like Rabbits 

The French have a term for it. L'heure Bleue, or "the blue hour," refers to that transitional time between day and night favored by painters and photographers, when the light turns magical, people's lives shift gears, and sensations are poetically enhanced, so it's a term that can symbolize such atmospheric experiences. Although Chris Brumfield is an avid clay sculptor and gardener, his primary interest is the poetic resonance of people's lives, especially the way some people associate their memories and experiences with the things they collect, objects charged with poetic symbolism.

This may sound familiar. Certainly the best found-object artists such as Joseph Cornell were geniuses when it came to extracting poetic associations from the little orphaned objects they accumulated. But Brumfield creates his own mementoes out of clay, emphasizing their "blue hour" connotations with liberal applications of blue glaze. Rather than engaging us with traditional paintings or sculpture, Brumfield gives us installations of his own collections of handcrafted and familiar, yet mysterious, curiosities. His Blue Ward is like a medieval village of whimsical clay structures, some resembling huts or houses while others are simply whimsical, period. Look at Me is more pointed, a cluster of clay sculptures of long-barreled pistols clutched menacingly by disembodied hands. Mounted on the wall and pointed at the viewer, their cartoonish lines are as reassuring as their proportions are menacing.

Another installation, There Was Glory in Them Eggshells, features dozens of nearly identical clay rabbits arranged on a salvaged wooden staircase, where they look as uniform and orderly as the legions of terracotta soldiers found in the tomb of the ancient Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, and just as spooky. But the most Zen moment awaiting the viewer is Trade Deficit, a crab trap filled with clay Buddhas -- not the historic religious Buddha of ancient India, but rather those jolly, fat, good-luck Buddhas that turn up all over Asia and beyond. With his crab traps, clutter and homespun objects, Brumfield reveals -- and seemingly revels in -- his Louisiana origins. Here his sense that collecting is an art form in its own right melds seamlessly with his implicit view that art is a subcategory of magic, that clutter is just another way of imposing order on a notoriously disorderly world.

Another exhibition devoted to collecting as an art form -- and a quite spectacular one at that -- is the Hunt Slonem: Artist and Collector show at the Ogden Museum. Here Slonem's own works, deceptively casual-looking paintings that have made him quite wealthy, share space with his collections of, well, all sorts of things, including Victorian furniture, 19th century busts and bric-a-brac, oriental rugs, Victorian-era top hats and other people's paintings -- typically 19th century portraits by famous and not so famous period artists. Many of these objects comprise the contents of another of his collections, huge 19th century houses, including two Louisiana plantation homes and at least one upstate New York mansion, and the ghosts that attend them. Which is fine with him; he communes with the spirits of the deceased, including Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the Civil War-era president, through psychics. Local art buffs knew years ago that Slonem was a collector at heart -- a glance at his seemingly endless canvases of tropical birds is enough to suggest a profoundly obsessive mindset. Here we see that he also paints moths, butterflies, ghosts, angels and yes -- rabbits. Raised as a Navy brat from nowhere in particular, Slonem, 55, attended college at Tulane. His flair for clutter must have helped him feel right at home in Louisiana, where he spends time puttering about his plantations when not busy in his 40,000-square-foot studio in Manhattan. This show is Ogden curator David Houston's tribute to Slonem's obsessive eye for grandiose curiosities as expressed through his paintings and collections, all melded together in a colorful extravaganza of a conceptual installation -- a kind of Slonem World as surreal alternative to Disney World, and something of an alternate reality in its own right.

click to enlarge In Chris Brumfield's There Was Glory in Them Eggshells, - dozens of clay rabbits appear mysteriously on a salvaged - wooden staircase.
  • In Chris Brumfield's There Was Glory in Them Eggshells, dozens of clay rabbits appear mysteriously on a salvaged wooden staircase.
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