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Ms. Herb Doctor Is In



"J'suis the Grand Zombie/My yellow belt of choison/Ain't afraid of no tom cat/Fill my brains with poison/Kon kon, the kiddy kon kon/Walk on gilded splinters/Kon kon, the kiddy kon kon/ Walk on gilded splinters ... ." -- Dr. John (Mac Rebennack)

You may have to look twice. Anywhere else, Renee Stout's small-scale assemblages and box sculptures would stand out, but at that supermarket-size emporium of anthropological relics and biological errata as well as folk, outsider, visionary and tribal African art known as Barrister's Gallery, Stout's stuff fits in all too well. Remarkably local in tone, it's as if Joseph Cornell's ghost had collaborated with Marie Laveau's voodoo spirits. Just looking at them can cause old Dr. John songs to start spinning in the mind.

Stout is actually based in Washington, D.C., but compensates with frequents visits to this city and its fabled river and flea market. Widely exhibited, with work in the Smithsonian collection, she bases much of her output on her personal experiences in particular, as well as on African-American culture in general, all of which come together in her fictive alter ego, one Fatima Mayfield, a spiritual advisor and proprietress of a voodoo botanica. Fatima is said to specialize in charms and talismans useful in matters of love and/or money.

One of Stout's pieces, Portrait of Fatima at 45, is a shelf with a mixture of colorful bottles and some rather nicely painted wooden blocks depicting aspects of Fatima's body: her hand, her ear with an adjacent cornrow, her staring eye, her belly with its tattoo of the voodoo spirit Erzulie, her lips, legs and so forth. A woman of many parts, her various bodily and bottled components appear formed and colored by a uniquely vivid history. While Portrait is a loose yet highly polished assemblage, Fatima and Black 9 is more folksy, with components that hark to both Africa and the ghetto. A series of painted panels with hand-scrawled signs and text as well as African fetish-like clusters of talismanic miscellany, it's a story about a dude called Black 9 and his fateful encounter with Fatima, whom he initially dismissed as a "ho" because of her purple sequined dress, blackberry lipstick and sunglasses. "No she's not, she's a root woman," the narrator retorts. What transpires is a long story in which the impudent, if poetic, Black 9 finds out the hard way that it don't pay to mess with no root woman. (Stout's narratives come across like feministic Ishmael Reed tales.)

Some works, for instance, Device to Stop a Man From Lying, are improvised experiments in ballistic voodoo technology, while others such as Trapped by the Past are more elegiac. A triptych of three found-object assemblages, Trapped features a mix of old photos and lost objects, and they are all just bits of junk, yet when arranged "just so," they take on a life of their own and become the visual equivalents of dream narratives. In this series, Stout keeps the spirits busy while keeping everyone else on their toes.

Also on the walls at Barrister's are some experimental prints by Ryan Burns that are actually rubbings of old growth tree stumps. Using waste paper, Burns tooled around Oregon in an ambulance converted to run on discarded cooking oil from restaurants and doughnut shops, making rubbings of the stumps of trees cut by logging companies. Some of the waste paper he used for the rubbings included architectural plans and billboard fragments. The largest was 10 feet across, corresponding to the 9-foot diameter stump of a tree estimated to be some 600 years old when it was logged. Burns says his project is designed to encourage a dialogue about our passive acceptance of this sort of mindless destruction.

Also up but soon to come down are Michael Fedor's colorfully enigmatic paintings and constructions. Here entities from the collective unconsciousness including the Egyptian scorpion goddess and the Marlboro Man are seen in paintings such as the Leaf Eater, which depicts a creature embodying aspects of both. Yet others such as RV, which looks more alien than anything, are actually inspired by "remote viewing," that exercise in psychic espionage developed by military intelligence spooks. All of which is very typical of Fedor, who has single-mindedly pursued such themes for years.

Renee Stout's triptych Trapped by the Past, part of her Fatima's Dreams exhibit at Barrister's, feels like the visual equivalents of dream narratives.
  • Renee Stout's triptych Trapped by the Past, part of her Fatima's Dreams exhibit at Barrister's, feels like the visual equivalents of dream narratives.

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