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Wither and Bloom Explores Truth and Memory

Erin Cunningham and Eli Craven collaborate at VAC

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Wither and Bloom--a show of new work by Boise artists Erin Cunningham and Eli Craven at Visual Arts Collective--harnesses painting and photography to "explore notions of truth in representation and the suggestive power of images upon memory." The results, for the most part, are striking. The show considers how representations can reinforce our mental universes and reminds us of the cyclical/transitional nature of existence.

As such, it is art that invites us into private, personal realms.

Cunningham's large, almost monochromatic figurative oils on unstretched canvas alternate with colorful close-ups of floral subjects, which are paintings of gravesite flower arrangements photographed by the artist. In their vibrant color and sturdiness, it is clear that the flowers are artificial, belying the decay taking place beneath. As in the Cunningham's previous work, the interplay between image and memory--between what endures and what does not--is important to her aesthetic.

Cunningham's figures have also been captured from other sources, but she places them in voids of sepia or other tones that impart anonymity, isolation and drama. The seawater green "This Used to Be An Ocean" is a compelling painting that sets the quiet, depressed tone of this body of art. A fashionable woman stands thigh-deep in a pool of water, contemplating an environmental past and present, and perhaps her place in history. The floral decoration on her 1950s dress symbiotically echoes the gravestone flowers nearby. In this, and her other works at VAC, Cunningham's dexterity with lighting effects adds an element of theater, suggesting a conundrum of consummate choices without relying on a bold palette.

The push and pull of the solitary figure and the gravestone flora is repeated in Cunningham's "Just One More Minute," paired with the surreal still-life "And Make It Last." The partially covered woman lying in bed materializes from the monochromatic canvas in a state of peaceful slumber (vs. a death-imposed "sleep"), conjuring the depressive's hesitation to get up and face the day. The floral composition has a vaguely hallucinatory aura, perhaps emblematic of a mental cocoon.

But the most striking of Cunningham's works are two that might be called hair portraits: "Still Growing" and "Mother's Pretty Hair 1911." The view point for both is from behind, set against a dark brown background. The former evokes a living, breathing being, while the latter is disembodied like a wig. The hair in these portraits is beautifully painted in yellows, browns and blacks, making for a dramatic study in light and shadow, which Cunningham seems to relish. They clearly constitute a feminist statement, one that speaks to generational change, historical taste and/or societal imposition.

The works contrast the contemporary natural look with an enforced aesthetic of coiffed and tied ropes of hair. But there is no anger or accusatory posturing here; rather, there is a whiff of nostalgia.

Cunningham's "An Island Emerges" is a dark commentary on the institution of marriage. Though she insists that her art is not fatalistic, there's no denying the melancholia at the core--which is part of its allure.

Photographer Eli Craven has a lighter touch but a sensibility and technique similar to Cunningham's. He seems more focused on the truth in representation aspect of the exhibit's theme. His chromogenic prints are presented in a series of works that, like Cunningham's, have an intimacy to them, yet he derives a more-obvious inspiration from nature. Craven's technique of blending figurative, floral and decorative elements from existing images he has re-photographed--manipulating the negatives in his studio to recreate surreal private moments--resonates with Cunningham's approach.

There are two groups of work entitled Transitory Periods of Greatness, one that conveys a quiet poetic vision and a second series that incorporates the grander forces of nature. In both, Craven said, he is subtly trying to communicate what he calls a "transitionary weight," i.e. significant change on a variety of levels, not necessarily involving death. In his close-up images, especially, Craven demonstrates a painterly feel for consideration of surface and texture.

Craven's first Transitory series (No. 1-No. 7) is the more effective and suggestive: an invitation into an intriguing private world in which we feel at home. A hand slipping through a neatly folded pair of decorative sheets evokes a content relationship between the human hand and a product of craftsmanship and is one example of Craven's particular brand of intimate poetics. A photograph of a hooded sweatshirt sprouting herbs also poetically entwines the botanical and human worlds.

His second series of Transitory Periods of Greatness (No. 16-No. 20) is more expansive, incorporating geologic and atmospheric forms on a more dramatic scale. Though his art is contemporary in concept, Craven is a romantic, with a Keatsian sensibility inherent in the first series and Shelley-esque aspirations informing the second.

So it is a bit startling when we notice that pain, too, is part of Craven's visual vocabulary. His Condolences are compositions of re-photographed, reconfigured arms and hands entwined and clutching heads for support in settings that suggest emotional trauma. The individuals' neediness is rendered with sensitivity that evokes tenderness and empathy. Craven is an accomplished technician attuned to the poignant potential of his medium.

There is only one drawback to this show and it has to do with the large space with which it must contend. Standing alone in VAC's expansive interior, a viewer becomes aware of an alternating pulse that comes from the art: dark and light, withdrawn and out-going, lost and found. In a more contained venue, this attribute would be more apparent. Wither and Bloom could just as easily have been called Rhythm and Blues.

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