Bev Reynolds has, for 25 years, steered her eponymous gallery into ever more fertile territory, weaving an artistic lifeline from her cozy block of this city's Main Street to New York and points beyond.
Eager to up the ante, she recently expanded into an adjacent building, doubling her space to 4,400 square feet spread over two floors. This is installation-friendly territory, and the show inaugurating the expansion, "Fictions in Wonderland," takes full advantage of the new space. The ambitious exhibition features installations and photographs by six artists -- old pros and newbies -- whom Washingtonians usually have to travel to New York to see. Reynolds built this exhibition around works that, she says, "take materials into another reality." These artists surprise us and they make us chuckle. They ask, Can serious art be made from G-strings? Pencils? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Yes, yes and yes.
Transformation of the everyday into the miraculous is the stuff of fairy tales. The best works here operate a lot like them, inviting us in with eye candy but lacing the sweets with serious, often politicized messages. There's a suggestion of a story, maybe "Jack and the Frankenstalk," in Alyson Shotz's "Still Life." The nine-foot-tall sculpture of a plant sprouting oversize pea pods is made from rubber coating a steel- and Q-tip-frame. Its punch line lies at its feet: Each stalk ends in a caster instead of a root, so the whole thing could glide on its mirrored base; it's as if the plant's obstinate roots are just the kind of inconvenience that scientists are so eager to eradicate. If this is the future of bioengineered uber-vegetables, you may want to skip ahead to dessert.
Another cautionary tale couched in the fantastic comes from Christopher Chiappa, a New Yorker known for his gallows humor (past works include a La-Z-Boy crucifix and a coffin covered in Band-Aids). Here Chiappa fashions a memento mori -- a subject popular a few centuries back, when artists commonly reminded their well-fed patrons that death was around the corner -- out of a staple of childhood and the unrefined palate: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Built up in layers like a cake shaped into a skull, Chiappa's edible craniums sit front and center on colorful dinnerware. The sandwiches aren't here, but the five color photographs documenting them serve up death like a blue-plate special. The pictures are whimsical and, well, deadpan.
If PB&J can say "Alas, poor Yorick!" then thong underwear can give a hoot for feminism. Artist E.V. Day has long explored the intersection of fashion and aggression. Past works include couture dresses blown to bits that riff on the militarism of the fashion vocabulary (as in bullet bras as well as bikinis -- which are named, as you'll recall, after the atoll that was the site of atomic tests in the 1940s.) At Reynolds, Day installed "G-Force (Jet Wash)," a downsized version of an installation she mounted in New York last year. This edition features six mesh thongs resin-coated into rigid, fighter-jet-like shapes in which the crotch forms the nose, the side straps the wings. Strung up on transparent tension wires that meet at a single point in the ceiling, the skivvies make a convincing squadron of fighter planes. (The artist even set a rogue black thong veering off course.) Three cheers to Day for a job well done: Simultaneously evoking single-point perspective, Monica and militarism with a G-string is no small feat.
Less sassy and more icky is Tara Donovan's landscape made from No. 2 pencils. Thousands of them, standing straight up on blunt-cut shafts measuring a millimeter to a couple of inches high, are massed on the floor like a giant mold stretching 10 1/2 feet across and, seemingly, growing. The piece is so convincingly fungal you may prefer to avoid it.
More inviting are Roxy Paine's sculptures done in red and white plastic like oversize blobs of melted wax. Made by dripping liquid plastic from a machine the artist constructed (you can see the contraption in a video here; it resembles an industrial candymaker), the organic-looking masses play with the notion of authorship: The artist made the machine that made the art; but the artist didn't fabricate the art directly. The final product is Disneyfied fungus -- organic and manufactured at the same time.
Since so much work in this show trades in bright color and pop culture references, what's Sally Mann, the doyenne of melancholia, doing here? Her black-and-white photographs are an island of monochrome in a Crayola-bright sea. While her pictures mythologize the South and its people -- according to Reynolds, that's why she's in the show -- her sensibility is 180 degrees from that of her light-hearted counterparts. Sequestered in the rear quadrants of an upstairs gallery, Mann's portraits of her children, landscapes and antebellum architecture belong in another exhibition. While always a pleasure to look at -- I adore the large-scale untitled picture from her "Deep South" series in which gnarled vines emerge from a swamp fog like Excalibur from the mists of Avalon -- the pieces don't fit here. Hers is no Wonderland -- it's Where the Wild Things Are.
So "Fictions in Wonderland" isn't perfect. But it's more ambitious than a lot of what we get in Washington. Congratulations to Bev Reynolds for bringing important artists, young and not so young, to the heart of Virginia.
Fictions in Wonderland at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., Richmond, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 804-355-6553, through Tuesday.