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Taking a Plunge

Finding Center: Glen Rogers Perrotto's photo-etching/monotype embellishes a torso with a spiral design.

Photo by Darren Darcey

A new group show veers from the profound to the shallow

By Ann Elliott Sherman

WALKING into d.p. Fong Galleries' latest group show is a little like taking a sudden plunge off the high dive; the work moves from deep to steadily shallower fare. Providing the ballast in the first gallery, Linda Wallgren paints retro-Renaissance oils like a woman possessed.

Her paintings produce a vaguely eerie sense of near déjá vu. The backgrounds use the richly murky, underworld tones of the Old Masters, but the paint skin is so fresh and shiny, the scent of linseed so strong, that the subliminal announcement is: "Look what I just did."

Wallgren has managed a rather complete deconstruction and update of religious art, stripping it bare of the usual historical or Biblical detail. What's more, the tortured, muscular nudes engaged in existential combat are female; their struggles, psychological.

Wallgren presents a female protagonist in the roles art history has previously reserved for the heroic male. But she does so without the irony or parody that others who borrow from the tradition usually employ, and without attempts to contemporize or narrow the subject matter.

Her matter-of-fact casting of a woman as the human representative in life-and-death struggles takes as a given that universal themes truly are big enough to speak to and for us all--a male prerogative until now.

Fortunately, the artist's figurative technique equals the task, suggesting that she made the most of her year's residency in Florence, Italy. Wallgren's bodies are subtly limned with sculpting light in varying degrees of warmth or intensity.

Fittingly, in Oestrus, the flesh is flush with excitement, the overcome woman clutching one hand to her bosom as she's paradoxically steadied by the ephemera that engulfs her. An algal bloom of cupric green replaces the usual dark surroundings. It's the moment of creative urge as a unification with all spiritual, sexual and natural phenomena.

Conversely, the alabastrine figure crouched on her haunches in And When She Was Not looks nearly embalmed. Blurred, piggish features, arms pinned behind the back and drooping breasts all add to the impression of wallowing in the muck, a cold acquiescence, if not outright surrender, to the horridness implied by the nursery-rhyme title.

Wallgren's coup de grace is her triptych, The Swamp Dream. On three slightly staggered panels, using only two figures and varying color dynamics, the artist leads the eye on an elliptical orbit that charges the painting with a sense of spatial depth and pulls us into mysterious emotional dynamics.

Why is that sturdy woman, ruddied by an unseen fire, loitering in the middle ground of the first panel, gaze averted? Is she disinterested, resigned, ashamed? What is her relationship to the bloodless woman collapsed in the foreground and reaching, almost pointing, right at the viewer? Are we somehow implicated in all this? Something's going on that feels a lot bigger than the hermetic self-absorption of most dream paintings.

UNFORTUNATELY, the stagy imagery used by Glen Rogers Perrotto suffers from just that kind of narcissism, despite her earnest intent to create archetypes that celebrate the goddess in us all. Perhaps it is that very deliberateness that defeats her efforts, as though something can become "mythic" through sheer act of will.

The dramatic nude poses work best in the instant antique look of the photo-etchings on aluminum (which are mounted like icons on faux marbled wood). Embellishing the torso with a spiral and labeling the piece Finding Center, however, tempts the latent anti­New Age cynic like a "kick me" sign. And if that doesn't do it, the oils on metal featuring a modern dancer miming a la Jules Feiffer probably will.

Upstairs, in silver-gelatin prints of various couples in embrace, Helen MacKinlay pays quietly positive, if derivative, tribute to the power of love. The offbeat humor of Guess What? and the composition and cropping of Vittorio I accenting the little triangle of space between the torso, arm and thigh of the refreshingly older man are glimmerings of a more idiosyncratic photographer lurking within the romantic.

If you can get past the incredibly self-congratulatory artist's statement (let alone the ego implied by adopting a single moniker), Monserrat does display an obvious talent for chiaroscuro photography, best realized, in his more abstract compositions like Illusion or Mask.

But in a series of pieces employing a white flower as a prop connoting emotion--in Dreamin' of You, it's held in repose between the breasts; Silent Anguish is signaled by the blossom raised in supplication; A Light at the End ... you guessed it--the work becomes tediously obvious.

Works by Linda Wallgren, Glen Rogers Perrotto, Helen MacKinlay and Monserrat show through Nov. 17 at d.p. Fong Galleries, 383 S. First St., San Jose. (408/298-8877)

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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