All flesh is grass. So said the Book of Psalms in the Bible. Are we our bodies, or are we something more? Such questions are as old as the hills and may have many answers even as they raise more questions. Our bodies, after all, are the most obvious expressions of who and what we are, yet they are also expressions of the vast web of life that surrounds us. Or so we might infer from Judith Burks' Anatomy Lesson show at Delgado.
A longtime art teacher and sometime medical illustrator, Burks was struck by the way anatomical illustrations can reveal so much about the body while saying so little about a person. All that was turned upside down in her large painting Genesis, in which Adam and Eve, the world's first couple, are given the full anatomical treatment. Partly inspired by Albrecht Durer's 14th century view of the prototypical duo, Burks' figures feature the same poses but with visible viscera, veins, capillaries and vital organs. (They also suggest Leonardo's early anatomical studies, and those clear, plastic, see-through anatomical models as well.) Behind them, the Garden of Eden looms darkly as a serpent slithers up a tree, and it is all quite enigmatic, yet not as unnatural as it sounds. In fact, the tangle of veins, arteries and viscera of their bodies blends neatly with the botanical tangle behind them.
Other paintings reflect related themes. Angel Bones depicts a winged spinal column with various vital organs, while Bones, Stones and Worlds Beyond suggests parallels between the figure, the world and planetary bodies. This is Burks' first show in 20 years and many of these colorful acrylic canvasses have an exploratory quality about them, with Genesis perhaps the most fully realized. If tentative at times, Anatomy Lesson is also thought provoking.
A very different take on anatomy appears in Monica Zeringue's paintings at Stern. Here the body -- often seen in the form of doll parts -- reflects a more personal journey that explores nature and the universe by going back through the labyrinth of memory. A Better Way to Fly is a like a large panel on which a variety of objects -- bird's wings, a pair of doll's arms, a lock of hair, a dragonfly, clusters of leaves and some small nails -- appear to be stitched in place with thread. In fact, it's all meticulously, realistically, almost illusionistically painted. Recalling objects collected in childhood, they seem to be mysteriously, if rigidly, secured by thread, and the symbols of freedom -- the wings of birds, moths and dragonflies -- stand in stark contrast to their bindings.
Especially evocative is Modification for Flight, a nude female torso on which a pair of bird's wings have been stitched to the flesh just above the breasts. Seen from the hips to the neck, the torso is a sleek and fleshly presence; the bird wings are feathery and the stitches securing them to the skin do not bleed. Like a captive medieval saint, her arms are bound against her side, only here the tethers are delicate strands of cat's claw vines so gossamer as to suggest that the bondage is somehow subtle, perhaps voluntary or unconscious. And of course those wings will never fly, stitched as they are to that fragile, flawless skin. All of which makes for an intriguing and ironic rumination on freedom and the ties that bind.
If Zeringue's images are tightly and meticulously painted, Judith McCrea Burns' Los Perdidos paintings at Newcomb's Carroll Gallery are anything but. Interiors like The Soothsayer and Jungle Honky-Tonk are orgiastic rhapsodies of expressionistic brushwork depicting diffuse scenes of shadowy male figures dancing with nude women in smoky limbo zones. The brushwork is so loose and washy that it's almost messy, so you only get hints of things: a pair of breasts here, a horned head there, in what amounts to a suggestion of nature's hormones colliding with history and mythology somewhere in the collective unconscious.
Nude Descending Staircase is a far cry from Duchamp's painting of the same name. Here a purple-tinged nude descends a carpeted staircase with her arm around a skeletal figure, as chimpanzees carrying briefcases scurry hither and thither. Other shadowy figures emerge from smoky gloom as the impulses of the body conspire with the untamed imagination to reveal how wild nature infiltrates civilization through the unconscious, through dreams and fantasies and visions that appear out of nowhere like mythic creatures arising from the surreal depths of the psyche.
- Judith Burks' Genesis is an anatomical study of Adam and Eve that conveys a subtle connection to the Garden of Eden that looms behind them.