Boise sculptor Amy Lunstrum-Nelson is a pleasant, thoughtful, somewhat shy person with a vivid imagination. Her strange, sometimes creepy figurative work seem at odds with her reserved persona. In the sparsely populated Boise ceramics scene, her stoneware and mixed media creations stand out as refreshingly original and provocative. Two concurrent shows running through August at the Basement Gallery and Flying M Coffeehouse reveal a sensibility shaped by religion, personal phobias and mortality, as well as a literary turn of mind.
One might call Lunstrum-Nelson an "outsider artist." Her training in sculpting with fired clay was acquired at Fort Boise Community Center and her work displays the quirky self-reliance, eschatological references and roadside religiosity that inform American folk art. But her conceptual and technical sophistication is higher than the typical "outsider." Her art is also more irreverent and its psychological edge can be unsettling.
At Flying M, the artist presents a series of stoneware wall reliefs that at first glance seem reproduced from Byzantium, icons to obscure saints that she peoples instead with "freak show" types like Bird-Footed Boy, Bearded Lady, and Conjoined Twins. They are bizarre visual puns, complete with halos, intricately designed backgrounds and colorfully glazed figures with symbols of their martyrdom, while some (like Our Lady of the Knives and Fire-Eater) seem to re-enact their horrific demise-a subversive take on sacred art and a celebration of mutant over ideal form.
Lunstrum-Nelson's interest in genetic mutation and the macabre is further revealed in her work at the Basement Gallery. Dreams, death and secret lives are explored as well. There is a poetic surrealism to her mixed media sculptures which turn cigar boxes into miniature shrines combining found objects with painted clay heads and apertures. These assemblages have a kinship to Joseph Cornell's famous box constructions, although Lunstrum-Nelson arrived at this concept independently.
The "shrine" boxes suggest her own secret lives. Since childhood, the notion of inanimate objects coming to life has fascinated and haunted her and inhabits much of Lunstrum-Nelson's mindscapes. Hairless, mongoloid-like heads with their malformed features in works like They Came to Me at Night in My Dreams seem to personify this element of the insensate eerily coming alive. Yet her subjects also demonstrate a preoccupation with universal themes and their implications.
Her freestanding stoneware works are similarly unconventional. In the nightmarish, Dali-esque sculpture Dream Catcher, disembodied snake-like arms and hands converge on a sleeping figure. The striking bust Phrenologist is a curious nod to 19th century pseudo-science. The funerary urn Arise, Asleep is inspired by 16th and 17th century tombstones, typically designed with grim references to death. Such Gothic romanticism is at home in her art.