Review of Cross-References at ArtGallery
by Michael Norton
Norfolk Fine Arts Examiner 03/12/10

Any environmental movement seems to ultimately gravitate towards some conception of the earth mother, and so it is especially appropriate that an exhibition focused on ecological concerns should feature the works of two women. Cross-References, currently on exhibit at ArtGallery, juxtaposes the works of two local artists at the vanguard of environmental art, May Britton and Manuela Mourão. Curator Lorrie Saunders brought Britton, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, and Mourão, a native of Portugal who teaches Comparative Literature at Old Dominion University, together for an extraordinary exhibition of new ways of creating as well as looking at art.

Walk into the gallery and you are welcomed by the wonderful aroma of cedar from installation pieces by May Britton, who produces art which represents "formal aesthetics expressed through the use of natural materials." Her work Foundation is the first piece that captivates as one enters the exhibition and, appropriately, lays the conceptual foundation for a series of sculptures representing the female form. Although largely realistic, the exaggerated elements of the female form, the breasts, womb and derriere, stretch the works to the point of abstraction. One could spend a lifetime looking at these captivating objects contemplating the line between abstraction and realism. The final piece on the tour is dissected horizontally, not unlike the classical divisions of the human body taught by the ancients to arrive at perfect proportions ("man is the measure of all things").

The most compelling of Britton's works, however is the second one encountered in the gallery: a natural sculpture of cedar which has been cross cut and reassembled at slightly different angles than the original log, leaving a spiraling work which invokes the double helix DNA, or the twisting of natural materials that forms so much of our manufactured world, the thread of life. The work has a magical effect, evoking different sensations depending on the angle viewed.

This work is complemented by a hanging of cedar crosscuts, Growth Pattern III, and two paintings by Manuela Mourão which evoke wood, a naturally decaying substance. The theme of Mourão's work for the show is the slow decay and degradation of nature. Her works Global Erosion and Blue Erosion II are the next objects encountered on the gallery confronting the viewer with a disintegrating globe and waters not teeming with life but cold and barren. Unlike the accusatory taunting of many environmental works, Mourão presents the inevitable atrophy. The sun will die. Wind and dust are natural corrosives. Red Lands, a collaborative effort between Mourão and Britton, evoke a world both bathed in warm sunset and parched by merciless rays.

On the opposite wall is Cross-References, another collaborative work from which the exhibition derives its title. Britton's clay appropriately appears to decay into Mourão's paint. Below Cross-References is one of the delights of the show, three statues of the Foundation female form. Although these are for sale individually, it will be something of a tragedy if this trio is separated: the effect is exponentially more satisfying with the three of them together.

On the edge of the divider above the three lovelies are three more hanging female nudes, reliefs, fragmented, exposing different perspectives of the female form. These also adorn the opposite edge of the divider, as one enters the gallery. These works are easy to overlook, but reward greater scrutiny as they contribute to the overall conversation created by Britton on the female form, or, more accurately, on form itself. The artist ingeniously fragments each piece, and what is missing says as much as what remains, creating nuances of shape and figure. Beyond, a wall-to-floor installation piece by Britton decorates one corner, hanging pieces of crosscut cedar identical to those in Growth Pattern III, complemented by stenciled decorations of clay on the floor. This creates a delightful oppositional effect with the hanging crosscuts "reflected" as shadows in the pool of clay on the floor.

Speaking of opposites, Britton flips the entire nude motif by presenting two empty dresses of coiled clay, both hinting at the same female form exhibited in the nudes. Instead of smoothing out the coiled clay, like most sculptures, Britton has left the coiling visible, creating a queer effect, as if the dress were a body wrinkling with age, reinforcing the "decaying nature" thesis of Mourão's work.

Opposite the empty dresses are two stunning red paintings by Mourão, Red Strata II. The coloration here is exquisite, and the pictures are balanced by a vertical stripe created by the texture of painted sand. These must be seen live to be appreciated. They are the kinds of paintings that one could stand in front of and reflect for hours. Perhaps it is the sand, but they have an absorbing quality. Another of Mourão's works that grows on you is juxtaposed against the final female nude, an abstract in blue. This is another painting that must be seen, for the real effect of the painting is produced by the brush strokes, vertical against horizontal, which define something reminiscent of a waterfall feeding a pool on which floats the red fields reminiscent of leaves on a pond. This is another painting which will induce endless reflection.

Cross-References is yet another important and educational exhibition from ArtGallery that richly repays the short drive from the Chrysler Museum of Art. This is environmentalism beyond simply going "green", mature thought about the nature of nature itself. There is a form to the giving of life, and a color of its ultimate dissolution. If our planet is indeed alive, then it is also dying. Despite the transgressions of man, this is natural.