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“Crosscurrents ’95: Soul Mates”

Dolls are the starting point for the works in the University of Maryland Art Gallery’s current exhibit, “Crosscurrents ’95: Soul Mates.” But in the hands of the show’s six artists, the notion of a childhood companion is expanded to the point of transformation.

The artists in “Soul Mates” come from diverse backgrounds. Richard Cleaver is the show’s sole “Anglo-American.” E.H. Sorrells-Adewale and Phyllis Audrey Wilson draw on African-American culture, Irma Francis on black Caribbean experience, Osvaldo Mesa on his life in the Cuban-American community, and Stephen Lee on native British traditions.

Most of the exhibit’s works are complex narratives. For example, Sorrells-Adewale’s installation, What I Saw the 3rd Time I Looked is a reflection on the artist’s experience upon the birth of his two sons. Somewhat reminiscent of the numerous altar-derived constructions pervading the art world in recent decades, Sorrells-Adewale’s sculptures mix contemporary references such as surgical gloves and manufactured baby dolls with traditional materials like feathers, straw, nests, snakes, and brightly painted wood. The effect is a distinct inversion whereby the modern and personal elements of the piece become vehicles for traditional and communal themes.

The installation protrudes from one wall of the gallery on which rows of tubes painted in horizontal bands are hung parallel to the floor. The tubes sprout baby-doll body parts (legs, arms, and heads) as well as feathers, grass, and ropes that connect to an altarlike pedestal in a grass- and bark-covered space in front of the wall. Enormous hands hold two brown babies on top of the pedestal and eight multicolored baby heads on the floor surround the structure. At the front edge of the ground carpet, a baby’s leg emerges from a nest resting on a snake.

A similar mix of contemporary American and traditional African materials appear in Wilson’s installation Where Spirits Reside. The artist covers the gallery floor with an elaborate pattern of leaves, mulch, sand, soil, nuts, shells, and pebbles on which visitors are invited to walk. At focal points of this design, Wilson places six figures—Caucasian dolls she has wrapped with twine and decorated with beading and shells or covered with clay. The names of the dolls invoke elements both abstract (“dreams,” “souls,” “doubts,” “journeys”) and material (“earth,” “cinnamon,” “pepper,” “twine”).

Like Sorrells-Adewale, Wilson integrates postmodern installation design with multicultural content in a kind of second-generation revisioning of traditional and contemporary concerns. In so doing, she finesses the issue of authenticity—and this sort of integration is the authentic tradition of art-educated artists working in the U.S. today. The strength of these installations, and of the other work in “Soul Mates,” is that they do not seem like pastiches at all, but rather demonstrations of the way the past is seen and experienced in light of the present.

This mutual restructuring of past and present also characterizes Francis’ doll icons and goddesses and Cleaver’s iconic furniture invoking notorious women in European history. Francis blends influences from her Catholic childhood in Grenada with energies from its Yoruba-inspired religion. Some of her figures—Luna, Jojolala, and Andromeda—are nearly life-size, and the latter two have elaborate drapery structures that connect them to provincial Catholic art. Luna, in contrast, seems to step directly out of an African past, but the hollow compartment filled with totemic shapes and a crystal sphere in the figure’s belly is as much contemporary as it is ancestral. These large figures, and the smaller groups the artist callsI-Dolls, have the power of Louise Bourgeois’ early work, but without the French artist’s existential self-consciousness. Francis is not proposing a social or personal critique of the condition of women, but connecting them to divination, fertility, and wisdom in a positive way.

Working in the European tradition, Cleaver explores a different female model: the queen. The three works here concern themselves with Russian Empress Catherine the Great, France’s Austrian-born Marie Antoinette, and the six wives of England’s Henry VIII. The two larger pieces, Queen’s Closet (Wives of Henry VIII) and Court Dress (Marie Antoinette, Queen of France), combine the effect of altarpiece and storage furniture. Topped by doll-like heads in elaborate period headdresses, both contain moving parts that tell the queens’ stories. But decoding them requires considerable knowledge of French and British history. Like Francis’ sculptures, the constructions are presences in their own right, their pearl-encrusted and ornately decorated surfaces promising riches they never reveal. Cleaver reports that he was prevented from playing with dolls as a child because of his gender, but that he was allowed to collect Catholic devotional statuettes and make them objects of veneration. He made dolls anyway, but hid them in boxes and drawers, which may account for these large works’ curious mix of secrecy, storage, and worship.

English artist Lee provides the most overtly cutting-edge work in the show—yet his pieces also invoke and transfigure tradition. Originally derived from the corn dolls sacrificed at harvest time to ensure a healthy crop, his “Soul Mates” works take their titles and impulses from English nursery rhymes. There Was an Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe presents the top half of a female figure emerging from an old-fashioned shoe, the whole constructed of woven straw. The figure’s wax face is topped by 14 interconnected wax baby faces, as if the children were somehow mental rather than physical creations.

Lee’s second sculpture, Ring O’ Ring O’ Roses, is a two-dimensional silhouette figure on whose gray-and-white surface painted blemishes and vein markings contrast with dried roses. The title and the roses allude to the use of dried flowers to ward off the plague in Elizabethan England, while the distorted body imagery brings the narrative up to date. Like the artists with African, Cuban, and Caribbean cultural roots, Lee demonstrates the possibility of finding inspiration for contemporary art in European popular culture.

The least narrative and most haunted of the installations is Mesa’s Magic and Original Sin. A heavily painted canvas suspended from a cross-shaped armature forms a background for totemic fetish shapes hanging in bundles. Mesa cites the shrines and relics of the Santería religion as a major influence on his art. His “dolls” are the most rudimentary in the exhibit, and also the most potently charged with personal and dramatic significance. Of the six artists in “Soul Mates,” Mesa seems closest to the religious sources on which he draws, yet those traditional elements are presented with a formal deliberation that reflects the artist’s academic training.

Exhibition curator Sarah Tanguy makes the connection between the doll starting point of the show’s sculptures and issues of spirituality and healing. Most of the works in the show propose the investigation of childhood and ancestral themes as ways of gaining access to those psychic and emotional conditions. But since all of the contributors to “Soul Mates” are trained modern artists, they reformulate their inherited materials in postmodern vocabularies that allow commonalities and differences to coexist. The range of styles is great, but many of the effects are similar, making the show’s title remarkably apt.