Teresa Cole's Transfer expo recycles Victorian-era trends into the globalized present. In Victorian England, the art of paper cutting became a domestic style obsession. Cutout paper silhouettes of family members and elaborate, highly stylized landscape scenes adorned fashionable parlors all over the English-speaking world. Meanwhile, fabrics stenciled with botanical patterns in the teeming, then-British colony of India found a popular following in the West, where they were rebranded with British-sounding names like "paisley." These design elements, along with some other oddball twists, add up to a cryptically decorous lexicon of signs and symbols in this unusual show at Gallery Bienvenu. This is possible because familiar decorative motifs often have a secret history of their own. For instance, the popular paisley fabric pattern is based on the sacred Tree of Life symbol of the ancient Zoroastrian religion.
Cole harks to the Indian printed fabric tradition while emphasizing the fluid nature of common design motifs and their sometimes veiled meanings in works like Serpentine or Vine, gauzy 8-foot-long hanging tapestries where hand-printed animal or botanical forms are silver-leaved and arranged to cast sinewy shadows on the gallery wall. In the East, such forms often turned up as designs on ancient temples and sacred structures, where they held deeply symbolic meanings. But are they reduced to mere decoration in the West, or do they still communicate subconscious sensibilities? Such are the questions Cole's compositions seem to pose, as we see in an installation of cut-paper prints on the rear gallery wall. One untitled piece (pictured) looks strictly Victorian at first, with languorous figures, decorous animals and children reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. But some figures are upside down, and closer examination reveals that some of those spiky forms in the background are silhouettes of giant mosquitoes. Here Victorian order comes unraveled in a Rorschach-like print that is actually a symbol of the multi-layered nature of civilization, and of the cultural and ecological forces that inevitably simmer just beneath the surface. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Transfer: Recent Prints by Teresa Cole
Through July 22
Gallery Bienvenu, 518 Julia St., 525-0518; www.gallerybienvenu.com