They Hid Their Depth In Plain Sight

Courtesy of Creative Arts WorkshopArtists Rebecca Murtaugh and Hillary Charnas found hiding places—and therefore prevailed in a hard-fought battle to win How Simple Can You Get?

That’s the juried national exhibition held last year at the Creative Arts Workshop (CAW). Their prize was to show a full room of their work.

Those twin exhibitions—Murtaugh’s bumpy, foamy, colorful sculptures called Alluring Repulsions, and Charnas’s photo collection called In a New Light intriguingly lit as if from inside—are now on view at CAW through April 3.

In making his selection, Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr quoted the wag or wags who said the best place to hide depth in art is on the surface, where viewers will not be looking for it.

That disconcerting experience of visual legerdemain occurs when you enter the street-level and sunlit gallery of CAW, where Murtaugh’s triangles, squares, and other geometries show off wild colors of paint done in surfaces that look like painted oatmeal.

Upstairs, where Charnas is displaying large-size digital prints where a haunting lighting seems to be emanating from inside ordinary objects photographed, giving them an extraordinary quality, neither holy nor profane.

The question, of course, is: How do you know you’re registering this mysterious depth that now you see, and now you don’t?

Answer: You have the feeling that something isn’t quite right here in the elements the artists have brought together. For Murtaugh’s work, which she describes as somewhere between painting and sculpture, what’s amiss is that the painted surfaces look and feel organic: like dried oatmeal or coral or frozen pachysandra. (You’re not really supposed to touch.)

What is such living-looking matter doing coating parallelograms and rectangles that messy, irregular Nature doesn’t particularly specialize in?

Even Murtaugh’s more organic forms, which she calls “leaners” (pictured), are odd over-sized tubes that might also be immense pieces of rigatoni left at an Italian restaurant after the thermal wave of the nuclear blast passed through and reheated the dinner.

There’s a disconnect that makes you wonder, and engage.

Likewise in the different medium of photography upstairs. Photography is the art of light, capturing it and manipulating it as it falls in streaks and shadows and revealing angles on your subject.

Charnas seems to be winking, photographing objects, mundane toy bunnies and globes and other tchotkes, that amazingly have their own light.

My light to yours. Let there be light indeed, but whose is real and whose shines more brightly? That of the viewer or the viewed?

The achievement here is not only this visual push-pull, which Murtaugh captures in her title, but the means through which it is achieved.

For example, in Charnas’s set of four digital prints entitled “Beauty Salon Ladies” (pictured). These base images strike me as a recycling of beauty parlor advertisements from Life Magazine that my mom might have looked through to copy Mamie Eisenhower’s “do” back in the 1950s.

Could there be a subject where appearance is more key? Then, with rotation of point of view and a simple red marking pen on two of the four images, Charnas suggests disappearance, bloody disfigurement, and perhaps even features of face turning into a strange oriental alphabet.

In the case of both artists, the simplicity is not in the depth hinted and made accessible through contrast so much as in how the artists both employ small shifts, careful choices, and modest means to yield big results.

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