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Shadow Dancing



It is said that opposites attract, but of course that's not always so. Sometimes oppositions exist within the same person, and the main difference between creative and destructive tensions may be the extent and style of their expression. History and mythology are filled with such seeming contradictions, as is literature. The new routinely emerges from the old, up comes down and down goes up, and it sometimes seems as if the only consistent things about this world are its inconsistencies and double-edgedness. In this vein, Audra Kohout's Replica show transforms the secret life of objects into a smorgasbord of symbolism.

Artfully cobbled from the artifacts of consumer cultures past, it reflects a personal mythology expressed in elegant relics and odd bits of refuse. Most, but not all, are shadow boxes. In Little Bo Peep, a ceramic doll, in barely connected pieces, rides astride a lamb that is really a horse, or perhaps a unicorn -- its appearance changes depending on the angle of view. Dolls reflect the innocence of childhood, but this doll looks antique and is surrounded by bits of broken watches. Above it a darkened dove is snared in some wires and the whole scene suggests a weird alternate reality of its own. Throughout it all, the little doll wears her best little doll face as she rides her steed like a tiny Joan of Arc forging onward through the chaos.

Time pieces are associated with order, but here time is clearly out of joint. Yet, it has its own integrity, nonetheless, with fishing weights and lamp parts providing at least a suggestion of gravity and illumination. Perhaps more to the point is Self Portrait With Apple, a box sculpture containing a Janus-faced figure with two antique doll heads amid a melange of objects including a porcelain rose, an ornamental golden apple, a piano roll and a miscellany of little industrial wheels, chains and lace, all bounded by an antique picture frame. Like people, objects can have secret lives, alter egos that only go public at Mardi Gras or in art shows.

Kohout sometimes invites comparison with Joseph Cornell, who also made shadow-box sculptures with bits of odd junk and whatnot, but Cornell was comparatively austere; his boxes have been compared to chess boards with only a few remaining pieces in play. Kohout, by contrast, is profligate, profuse; her boxes are reliquaries crammed with objects encountered by chance, things charged with the aura of former owners, weighted with their personal histories and infused with ages of innuendo. Reliquaries or gris-gris concoctions, Kohout's boxes affirm that there can be poetry in antique clutter and apparent aesthetic disorder, which can be a more subtly complex system in disguise. In fact, every object in these boxes is very precisely placed. Which makes for a very New Orleans recipe: the patina of the ages is the roux; the other ingredients are carefully selected for their poetic resonance. The results can be spicy or sentimental, depending on the disposition of the viewer.

The drawings are different, though not entirely. Paper Doll is a kind of figure study, a torso view of a woman in what appears to be a 19th century dress. Look a little more closely, though, and you can almost see through it. But it's not that simple -- comprised of charcoal flourishes on layers of new and old paper and fabric, there is Kohout's usual confusion of appearances, so the inner and outer woman become a riddle of sorts, as dress and flesh, hair, skin, nails and lace seem to almost change places in some uncanny transfiguration. Or maybe a Picassoid transmogrification of sorts. (Reinventing the world is a messy business.)

More chaos, for sure, but it also has its own internal order. Which is also why a New Orleans back street beats a gated suburb any day: the former possesses an aesthetic oxygen, which the latter lacks entirely. Objects, even architectural objects, that have been touched by ages of genuine human regard, give off a kind of poetic oxygen, even as they decay. People may not know what it is, but they sense beauty and even some sort of freedom in their presence. Kohout's sculptures and drawings invoke such objects in fetish-like arrangements, hence they become charms for protection against an overly programmed society that has become obsessed with "new and improved" things that allow little room for people to be simply and uniquely themselves.

Audra Kohout's Self Portrait With Apple, features box-sculpture objects living their own secret lives.
  • Audra Kohout's Self Portrait With Apple, features box-sculpture objects living their own secret lives.

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