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A Tailored Garden in Full Flower at Numark

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page C05

There's one question that leaps to mind upon seeing "The Motley Tails," Sharon Louden's quirky extravagance of an installation at Numark: Exactly how many My Little Ponies died for this?

Turns out the stuff of Louden's exhibition wasn't shorn from Hasbro's horse figurines, though the resemblance is awfully strong. To make her room-size work, New York-based Louden collected hundreds of thousands of feet of microfilament fishing line in all manner of Easter egg colors. Long faux tresses in varied degrees of curl, bounce and gloss are fastened into ponytail-like bundles, some as long as your body, and suspended from the ceiling at varying heights. Since they're grouped in random clumps, here a dense patch of tails, there farther apart, visitors can wander around, under and beside them, brushing past their plastic tentacles. "The Motley Tails" could almost pass for a room-size playpen.

Sharon Louden's "The Motley Tails" uses snatches of color to seduce viewers. (Courtesy Numark Gallery)

Yet as I meandered, ducked, and shimmied past the hanging tails, the idea of a three-dimensional interactive landscape came to mind. Since most of the plastic knots skim the floor, they appear to grow up like trees; Louden's palette, heavy on greens and yellows, furthers the conceit. "The Motley Tails" could be a picturesque garden brought indoors for the winter.

Back in the 18th century, Britain's upper classes went gaga for a new kind of garden. Popular landscape architects such as William Kent snubbed their noses at French-style horticultural symmetry -- the kind of ordered plantings you see at Versailles. Rather than master nature with applied rationality, Kent and company replicated nature's inconsistencies and even one-upped her wildness: They calculated to appear uncalculated.

Just as a stroll became an idyll in the transformed 18th-century garden, so the winter-chilled urbanite can indulge in Louden's fantasy space. Visitors may enjoy her piece from within or admire it from a distance. The long view is my favorite: Taking in the room as a panorama reveals thematic surprises. A violent strand of red runs through a rear tail, as if murder were one of many intrigues woven into this make-believe world.

When Kent drew up his garden plans, he based them not on the parks he visited throughout Europe, as one might expect. Instead, he drew on the artist's idealized version of nature: the landscape painting. He brought the great landscapes of the baroque -- painted by Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and others -- into three dimensions. His choice of shrubs in varying hues mimicked painterly effects of light and shadow.

Louden does much the same thing. She interweaves variously colored strands to create highlights and lowlights that lend her tails depth and dimension. Likewise, her foundation is painting -- her own.

A handful of wood panel works from the series "The Lingering," also on view here, depict short, sinewy gestures that are the source forms for her installation. "The Motley Tails" picks out those markings and extends them into sinuous lines of microfilament. Like a picturesque garden, the work has a light touch and a conceptually rich underpinning.

Numark's project room, adjacent to Louden's installation, features four wall sculptures by Las Vegas-based artist David Ryan. The pieces occupy a conceptual middle ground between sculpture and painting, formality and expressionism. Each is made from three layers of medium-density fiberboard panels (the cheap but efficient stuff of Ikea bookshelves) cut into irregularly edged cartoon strip balloon-like ovals and laid on top of each other like slices of bologna. My description sounds more complicated than they look. Most cut a sleek, flirtatious silhouette. Snatches of bright color peek out from the edges of their predominantly white surfaces.

The objects may be expressive in form but not in manufacture. Ryan's shapes are laser-cut by equipment programmed to follow the artist's designs, then they're sanded to a machine-tooled smoothness and painted with acrylics. Close in spirit to industrial objects, their lack of apparent human touch would please a diehard minimalist.

Despite their clean lines and surfaces, though, the pictures insist on their own rounded and goopy forms. Their voluptuous curves and low relief remind me of the blobby thick paintings on Plexiglas that District artist Maggie Michael used to make. Their intrigue comes out of the push-pull between clinical production and seductive form.

Amy Ross and Robert Gutierrez

The magical mystery tour has pulled up at Irvine Contemporary Art, where depictions of ancient myth and science fiction vie for our attention. Amy Ross's sepia-toned wall drawing and accompanying suite of works on paper riff on Ovid's tales of metamorphosis, art's centuries-old pet theme. Robert Gutierrez does graffiti and comic book-inspired gouaches blending science fiction and the occult.

Ross's pictures depict flowering tree bulbs birthing goat heads. Segmented branches resemble legs and joints. Hooves emerge at twig tips, in lieu of berries. Ross lays down images sparingly using sepia inks and preserving swaths of bare paper. The light touch leaves me wanting; her imagery isn't insistent enough to carry our interest.

Gutierrez packs complex images in small-scale works. Most here measure the size of a notebook leaf. The artist employs opaque gouaches in pink and baby blue against blackened backgrounds to depict curious life-forms and settlements in outer space. Hallucinatory, surreal and far-out, the pictures give us plenty to chew on.

Sharon Louden and David Ryan at Numark Gallery, 625-27 E St. NW, Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-628-3810, to Feb. 19.

Amy Ross and Robert Gutierrez at Irvine Contemporary Art, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-332-8767, to Feb. 27.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company