The Right Ingredients For a Sweet Experience

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 4, 2008

Despite its too-precious title, the group show "You Catch More Flies With Honey . . .," on view at Carroll Square, rarely flags. Curator Kimberly Gladfelter Graham chose five artists who seduce with eye-popping color and compositional punch -- that's the honey of her title. Yet each artist embeds a barb -- a reminder of mortality, perhaps, or the use of an unexpected material -- that snares us flies for good.

Presiding over the exhibition with graphic power is Valerie Molnar's "Count Tyrone Rugen's Run." (The title refers to a character from Rob Reiner's film "The Princess Bride," but Molnar won't tell us why.) At 15 feet tall and nearly 20 feet wide, the work is a massive wall piece forming an abstract striped pattern in vibrant color. With jagged edges and a diagonal thrust, the work calls to mind an oversize, technicolor leaf, or maybe some exaggerated peacock tail. Whether it's animal or vegetable is anybody's guess.

Molnar works in acrylic, but not the kind you might be thinking of. Though she's enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University's master's degree program in painting, Molnar puts no paint on canvas; instead, she knits acrylic yarn. "Count Tyrone Rugen's Run" is hand-woven like a massive, sprawling sweater.

Molnar likes to say that she knits paintings. Her piece bears that out, sharing a sensibility with 1960s-era artistic experiments with shaped canvases. Likewise, its expansive palette -- rainbow hues segue into swampy earth tones, then to black and white -- could pass as a large-scale investigation of color relationships.

But the nubby yarn distinguishes her work from earlier painting experiments and gives the piece an itchy presence. Molnar's technique melds painting, so long a male-dominated medium, with craft arts traditionally associated with women. Bravado and femininity mix in the best possible way.

While Molnar's work subverts expectations with unusual materials, Denise Tassin's pedestal-based tableaux play with scale to create vertiginous experiences.

Tassin places doll-size figures in mysterious narratives that play out on green felt panels positioned atop waist-high pedestals. The felt suggests pint-size AstroTurf, lending each piece a placeless quality that emphasizes its surreal nature.

One pedestal features a tumult of tiny upturned chairs that have balloonlike plastic balls hovering over them. The scene strikes me as low-rent Isa Genzken, the German artist whose pedestal-based sculpture shows up at nearly every major international and museum show, including last year's "The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas" at the Hirshhorn. Where Genzken grounds her sometimes flimsy-looking projects in German postwar politics, Tassin narrows her scope to neater, more intimate narratives. But like Genzken, she combines the precious and the perilous.

Todd Johnson's pictures examine charming killers -- or, at least, accomplices to the crime. A grid of 12 color photographs printed on paper depicts objects used in hunting, fishing and flirtation. Each is designed, in one way or another, to lure prey.

It seems a wonder that a glazed-eyed wooden mallard could attract a bird -- or anything else, for that matter -- to within shotgun range. Then again, I'm no duck. As for the colorful fishing lures Johnson also photographs, their painted eyes and colorful wooden bodies hardly distract from the three-pronged barbs they're perched on. Clearly, fish aren't concerned with these details.

Into this context Johnson inserts several pictures of flower-printed handkerchiefs. They recall the days when the "accidental" descent of a fabric square signaled a woman's interest. Though more about social signs than primal ones, their inclusion tweaks an otherwise straightforward project and suggests, perhaps, that we rethink the mating dance.

Two other artists present paintings. Isabel Manalo shows minimalist landscapes that are loosely based on -- but never clearly depict -- disaster photographs published in newspapers and magazines. Instead of revealing their source, they resemble playful abstractions of the kind Washington has seen in erstwhile resident Jason Gubbiotti. Manalo, too, seems primarily concerned with palette and form, not the nuclear spills and death marches her paintings' titles allude to.

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