The “Duality” expressed in the title of Holly Cole’s exhibition of new work at the Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art at the University of Memphis, through Oct. 25, could manifest itself in several ways.
There’s the duality of material and matter, of light and shadow, of paint and surface, even, to get personal, of Cole’s dual existence as artist and as songwriter and singer for the popular Memphis Dawls.
Cole works in strips of wood that she configures into sculptures of extreme, almost knotty angles, whose very substance we question when we see that the shadows they project on the wall are as important as the pieces themselves. Yet if it weren’t for the presence of the sculptures and the lights aimed at them, the shadows would not exist. You may fill in the blanks here with any metaphor you want to use concerning the ephemeral nature of corporeal being.
Take the show’s centerpiece, “Kink,” a sort of glitched Art Deco totem that gains impressive height on its pure white pedestal. The whiteness of the base is important because it offers a blank field of contrast to the piece’s fiery hues that start with hot pink at the bottom and shade to orange at the top. Seen from the front — that is, the colorful side — the work is deceptively monumental, sleek and sophisticated.
From the back, however, “Kink” presents a seemingly random geometry of untreated and unpainted wood, touched here and there with a few smudges of pigment or dirt. One gets the sense of a stage set, polished and well-crafted on the business side and left to its own devices on the side that’s hidden from the audience.
“Kink” is, in other words, a piece of theater, a highly effective exercise in the trickery that joins the (so-called) artificial and the (so-called) natural, as a stage set does. It’s a classic sort of duality that goes back to ancient Greek drama, or, in art terms, to the first period of Cubism, when Picasso and Braque glued pieces of newspaper to their paintings.
The implication is that “Duality,” while being immediately attractive and intriguing, is a thoughtful and even provocative exhibition that teases from us puzzles about reality and illusion, as in the large piece “Plaid,” in which six evenly spaced unpainted boards leaning against a wall cast a network of shadows complicated by bands of blue and red painted on the wall as if they, too, were shadows. The quality of the work in “Duality,” however, is uneven, and a few pieces — “Balance,” for example, and “Skew” — feel glib and undernourished, while another ambitious and overdetermined effort, “Luminesce,” fails technically because its material, a large, thick sheet of paper incised with lines and cutouts, is torquing under pressure and breaking the fragile connections.
Overall, though, “Duality” pleases and intrigues aesthetically and imaginatively, as well as presenting itself handsomely. You stand in Fogelman Gallery B, look around at Cole’s vivid colors and emphatic shapes and think, “This looks good.”
Holly Cole, ‘Duality’ (BFA Selects series)
Through Oct. 25 at the Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art. Art and Communication Building, University of Memphis, 3715 Central, across from Holiday Inn. Call 901-678-2216, or visit memphis.edu/art/fogelmangalleries.