Digital Extremities

Gambit 3/28/06

By D. Eric Bookhardt

What: Inductive : Recent works by Courtney Egan and Ann Schwab and Jessica Goldfinch at Big Top

As we survey the altered landscape that surrounds us these days, it's hard not to take it personally. This is a city with a very distinct personality, after all, and for many of us a ruined local neighborhood is like a friend or relative in critical condition. In ages past, landscapes were experienced more personally as spaces inhabited by "genii loci," spirits of place that could either help or hinder the inhabitants. Inductive, a digital photography and video show at Loyola's Diboll Gallery, is not about neighborhoods, but it does explore the underlying connections between personal space and the landscape.

Ann Schwab uses natural forms and surgical references as metaphors for injury and our responses to it. Her digital photomontages are untitled, and the tone is conceptual because some images are disjointedly juxtaposed, like a poetic exercise in graphic design. One features a female figure from the waste down, arms crossed over her pale, classical thighs as she seems to be leaning forward a bit. But unlike classical statuary, which might employ such a pose to suggest a water nymph gazing at her reflection in a pond, her hands speak a body language of apprehension. Juxtaposed alongside are blanketing leaves like ground cover, leaves so substantial and well formed as to suggest flesh even as the adjacent flesh of the woman's body conveys fragility, hinting at the Book of Psalms' admonition that "all flesh is grass."

Some of Schwab's strongest images, however, are surrealistic montages rather than juxtapositions. One of the most evocative is a cinematic view of a woman's chest, the filmy white fabric of her blouse unbuttoned to reveal a most unusual skin condition. Look again, and the odd little growths projecting from her flesh are cactus-like spines or thorns, a metamorphosis like the brainchild of a fevered mind, a kind of Kafka meets David Lynch production. Another image of a woman's upper torso focuses on a breast crowned, not by a nipple but by an inky fingerprint. Another haunting image features a sprig of eucalyptus seemingly stitched into a woman's skin. Straub's body modifications are subtle in tone yet inescapably gothic, part of the little-noticed new romanticism in recent art. There are also occasional drawings and even some delicate sculpture, but all convey that eerie sense of the fragility of the flesh. Conceptual art and surrealism have always been kissing cousins, and in this quietly eloquent show, Schwab is both midwife and match maker.

Equally subtle but literally less pointed are Courtney Egan's digital video pieces. As with Schwab, most deal with the landscape in personal or human terms, but with different results. In one a waterfall is projected on an expanse of cascading cloth, yielding a ghostly hybrid of light, fabric and water. Another is a screen on which a time-lapse tree grows from a sapling to a mighty oak, but the quirkiest is the door of a wrecked car in which time-lapse flowers projected on the window from within seem to grow and bloom. It's all generally interesting if a little vague, so, for now at least, let's file these pieces under "transitional" until we get a better idea of where things are headed.

Meanwhile, back at the Big Top, Jessica Goldfinch and Jonathan Traviesa explore their own take on personal space and the landscape. Traviesa's photographs are urban vistas, views of streets in cities such as Miami, images that explore the nexus of personal and impersonal space. Goldfinch gives us surreal miniatures on Shrinky Dinks -- a flaccid, malleable form of plastic that can be painted or stenciled and then baked, which hardens and seals the imagery. In Fruit of the Womb, fallopian tubes appear with bunches of grapes in a whole new approach to the baroque still life. In Saint Lucy the saint of sight holds a huge eyeball on a platter, but in Be a cross-section of a bee appears with a human fetus inside. Like a kind of latter-day gothic art, Goldfinch's Shrinky Dink miniatures suggest the holy icons of a surrealist religious cult -- one in which Goldfinch herself must surely qualify as a self-ordained high priestess.