Victory without Fanfare, Image with Purpose

By Ryan Filchak ~

Victory without Fanfare displays the culminating body of work from a three-month residency at the Lexington Art League’s Loudon House by artists Lori Larusso and Melissa Vandenberg.  Guests were invited each Tuesday during the residency to see how the artists had transformed into their personal studios space typically reserved for exhibitions.  These studio visits allowed guests the opportunity to preview the works, meet the artists and observe the art-making process prior to installation.

Although the Lexington Art League is familiar with summer residency programs, this year curator Becky Alley handpicked two artists whose works compliment each other in a gallery space. Vandenberg and Larusso work with two different mediums – each artist uses imagery ranging from the tragically inane to the overwhelmingly significant to reveal the purpose of representation.  “Both artists work with themes of nostalgia and sentimentality in a way that questions the mythologies of the idyllic American Dream, patriotic pride and duty, and the way in which we culturally and systematically romanticize a history that was no more perfect than our present,” she writes in her curator statement. Larusso’s paintings and Vandenberg’s sculptures complicate the image at hand (the American flag, a life jacket, an ice cream clown, etc.) either through process or form to add new meaning on a personal or national level that causes the viewer to reinterpret the familiar.

Larusso’s shape paintings use imagery of the home to address the separation between an attempted idealized domesticity and a more common reality.  A women’s studies minor while attending the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, Larusso uses her paintings to acknowledge a return to the perfectly manicured lifestyle images of the 1950’s housewife. “We have a curated existence on social media: it’s still edited and you’re not showing the real stuff,” Larusso says in an interview with LAL. Instead of painting a solitary cup of coffee, perched perfectly on a windowsill from where one may gaze stolidly into a distant mountain range as one might expect to see in a lifestyle magazine, Larusso’s ‘To-Go Coffee Spill’ and ‘Homewrecker’ depict misfortune and broken dishes.

Interestingly, Larusso makes these moments of imperfection in her paintings more subtle in their disruption of the picturesque through a unique layering process of color.  Each layer of paint is first drawn out and then taped so as to prevent upon application any bleed-over from one section of color to the other. This results in crisp lines that seem to lay one on top of the other.  When you pair this technique with how Larusso literally cuts the negative space out of her paintings with a jigsaw, she ironically creates paintings devoid of the same spontaneity of the subject matter.

Vandenberg’s sculptural works transform the readymade (a lifejacket, handkerchief, sewing machines) to create an alternative interpretation of the image at hand on a political level in the same way Larusso’s shape paintings of spilt coffee and broken dishes express a present dichotomy of perception and reality on a social level.  The sculpture Rapunzel for example – a braid of fabric that stretches from high on the wall down to the gallery floor – contains not only the preexisting connotations of patriotic imagery because it repurposes torn American flags, but the fairy tale allusion turns a symbol of pride into one of distress.  Vandenberg repeats this theme with her series of photos in which she covers a female face with temporary tattoos culled from a bygone bicentennial celebration.  Entitled Red, White and Blue in the Face Vandenberg photographs her model wearing a string of American flag lights.

Forget Me k(not), Melissa Vandenderg

Forget Me k(not), Melissa Vandenderg

Red, White, and Blue in the Face, Melissa Vanderberg

Red, White, and Blue in the Face, Melissa Vanderberg

In addition to these political sculptures and paintings, Vandenberg weaves themes of eastern philosophy into traditionally western artifacts through her larger installation pieces.  For example, Forget me (k)not is an installation piece of 800 used handkerchiefs collected from deceased family members and estate sales.  The handkerchiefs hang both inside and outside the gallery in formations that mimic the Tibetan prayer flags found on Mt. Everest.   With her performance installation Mandala Machine – eight sewing machines arranged in a circle, sewing thread onto a continuous piece of fabric with a finite amount of thread – Vandenberg again infuses domestic objects with Buddhist ritual.

To quote Vandenberg, “I think we both feel the irony and have an appreciation for the clever when it comes to mid-century idealism”, and this is most evident with The Cold Charmer Series by Larusso.

The Cold Charmer Series, Lori Larusso

The Cold Charmer Series, Lori Larusso

These paintings of ice cream sundaes made to look like clowns do not contain the political gravity of the American dream unrealized, but instead they serve a crucial purpose to remind visitors that these artists seek a reinterpretation of familiar imagery in their work that can also be playful and lighthearted.

Visitors can see Victory Without Fanfare at the Loudon House located at 209 Castlewood Drive until October 5th.  Gallery hours for the Loudon House are Tuesday through Friday, 10-4, Saturday and Sunday, 1-4.

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