Poetic Transformations

Poetic Transformations
UALR Gallery I
Little Rock, AR
August 15 – October 3, 2012

As you exit through the gallery’s glass doors
that antlered head reflected, is it yours?
For survival’s sake when leaving best beware
of baying bloodhounds in Trafalgar Square.

The above excerpt discloses the last four lines of Tony Harrison’s 2012 “Diana and Actaeon,” an eerily relevant poem rife with hypersensitive reader awareness and opportunity for introspection. Writing to a 21st century audience in reference to the ancient Greek myth of Actaeon, a hunter turned deer after unwittingly discovering goddess of the hunt Diana’s secret hideaway, Harrison explores the relationships between the hunter and the hunted, the violator and the violated, the beholder and the beheld—in short, relationships that unequivocally plague every generation, twisted and appropriated by each individual culture through time. The five distinctly feminine artists of Poetic Transformations gingerly deconstruct the beautiful façade of a diseased nation to reveal similar relationships that, in the words of Curator Brad Cushman, “[exploit] and continue to exploit.” But what is the point of either Harrison or the Transformations artists if not to reveal a single greater truth? Our transformed, “antlered head[s]” lend much explanation to this question.

Tintoretto, Last Supper, 1592 - 94, oil on canvas, San Giorgio Maggiore; photo courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art

Tintoretto, Last Supper, 1592 – 94, oil on canvas, San Giorgio Maggiore; photo courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art

The respective furniture, installations, prints, sculptures and wood works of politically active (intellectually if not physically) American artists Jennifer Anderson, Jacqueline Bishop, Alice Leora Briggs, Holly Laws and Sylvie Rosenthal collectively make up Poetic Transformations, deemed by Cushman an “[examination of] how the relationship between the human world and the natural world continues to transform.” Accordingly, each form artfully but easily recalls humankind’s various sins against the natural order through chilling and discomforting representation, Bishop’s Black Memoria and ocean pollution, Laws’ House Geodes and violation of basic human rights, just to name a couple.

Sylvie Rosenthal, Journey to an Empty City, 2010, poplar, white oak, paint, mixed media, Blue Spiral 1 Gallery, Asheville, NC; photo courtesy of UALR Art Department

Sylvie Rosenthal, Journey to an Empty City, 2010, poplar, white oak, paint, mixed media, Blue Spiral 1 Gallery, Asheville, NC; photo courtesy of UALR Art Department


These quiet, figurative screams of injustice readily find a target in me, a modern-day huntress of art exhibitions and a clear point of view turned object of prey by mere spectatorship, not unlike Actaeon or Harrison’s gallery visitor. Far beyond the notion of art for art’s sake, Transformations is by and large one of the most conscientious exhibitions I’ve ever reviewed, or just plain viewed for that matter. Though visually mesmerizing and aesthetically spot-on, it is preeminently a steadfast voice for social and environmental progress, hunting and gathering followers through education and a propensity to transform self-perception.

The fact that the Transformations artists draw largely from male predecessors could be a whole other topic in itself. Anderson’s streamline furniture, for example, which bears a striking resemblance in design to Marcel Brueur’s mid-century Cesca chair, or, as Cushman points out, Rosenthal’s intricate, multi-part wood sculptures, reminiscent of the innovative contraptions of Leonardo da Vinci, are testaments to the ever growing power of the woman artist over traditionally masculine art forms. Alice Leora Briggs’ grisly silkscreen Candide, nonetheless, is particularly telling to the overall sociopolitical statement of the exhibition. Although Dürer-esque in style, the silkscreen suggests to me an influence, intentional or not, from Tintoretto’s 1592 Last Supper. In its diners’ ignorance of the pressing devilish figures, Candide conveys an “isolationist view,” as Cushman explains, that easily translates across every aspect of Poetic Transformations into humanity’s self-centeredness, and therefore disregard of anything non-self. Although Tintoretto’s diners, save Christ, are ignorant of the hovering ethereal figures for completely different reasons, I can’t help but digest the common notes of insensitivity and ill-perception that define our society, today and yesterday.

Alice Leora Briggs, Candide, 2007, silkscreen, UALR Permanent Collection; photo courtesy of UALR Art Department

Alice Leora Briggs, Candide, 2007, silkscreen, UALR Permanent Collection; photo courtesy of UALR Art Department

Despite these ugly aspects of modern culture brought to harsh light, Briggs and the other artists equally emphasize the adaptability and resilience of humanity in the very expectation that visitors could be inspired to take action and potentially alter the course of history after viewing the exhibition. The ghostly images of Poetic Transformations remind and continue to remind me of the disparity between where we are and where we should be in respect to nature. I mean, isn’t that the point of a socially-themed exhibition – to leave you haunted long after, so that you do not forget? I know that I will not forget anytime soon and am encouraged to consider my place in this rapidly increasing mass disconnect from nature. Even in the unrest of its subject matter, Transformations possesses an affectingly meditative quality that instantly engages, leaving you educated and deeply impacted. How refreshing to review an exhibition that is so uniquely beautiful, yet highly complicated and thought-provoking.

Elaine Slayton Akin is currently the Communications Director at the Thea Foundation, an arts-focused nonprofit in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Elaine also serves on the board of Number: Inc.