At the Edge 

Works by Red, Cowan, Paulus, and Barnett Hensel.

Tawnee Cowan's Trapped Within the Unknown

Tawnee Cowan's Trapped Within the Unknown

In her powerful mixed-media painting Red Crosses, currently on view in the Jack Robinson Gallery group exhibition "Code," Sam Red blurs the boundary between the conscious and unconscious and between the sacred and the profane. Across the surface of the painting, Christian crosses drip blood. A series of circles looks more like worn tires than symbols of perfection or eternity. A strip of brocade wallpaper points to the top of the painting where the charred facade and the crumbling archways of a villa or cathedral bring to mind antique pontiffs' hats or the soiled outfits of Ku Klux Klanners. This is what ideology looks like in the real world.

Red Crosses reads, in part, like Francis Bacon's mix of religiosity and rot. Instead of being sardonic, however, Red's aesthetic sensibilities register as insistence that we look at the world not as we wish it to be but as it is.

Years of chemotherapy that successfully treated photographer Tawnee Cowan's leukemia prevent the artist from taking medication to alleviate the pain caused by an automobile injury. Cowan is able to forget her pain, temporarily, when she photographs the fierce beauty and courage of men and woman fighting cancer.

With fists clenched and mouth wide-open, the figure in Enough rages against his fate. Some of Cowan's subjects, like the Nashville artist depicted in Enough, are winning the battle against cancer. Others, more gravely ill, may not live to see Cowan's book, Warriors in Wings, to be published by the Wings Cancer Foundation next year.

In Trapped Within the Unknown, one of Cowan's most complete statements regarding the human condition, a mosaic of delicate lines crisscrosses her otherwise flawless porcelain torso and maps out a network of nerves along which her back pain radiates. The title of this work, the blindfold that Cowan wears, and the horizontal timber that backdrops her head remind us that the cross that Cowan (and each of us) bears is existential as well as physical.

click to enlarge Jennifer Barnett Hensel's      Lasting Conversation
  • Jennifer Barnett Hensel's Lasting Conversation

Some of Alex Paulus' strongest paintings are stark, beautifully drawn oil-and-graphite works with Bible verses for titles. Paintings such as I Will Bring Locusts Into Your Country remind us of the Old Testament emphasis on vengeance rather than compassion.

What looks like a high-tech pest exterminator is God's instrument of judgment in I Will Punish Your Country by Covering It With Frogs. If piles of frogs are a barometer of God's anger, we have indeed aggravated the Almighty. Billions of frogs are going belly-up worldwide, victims not of God's wrath, however, but of pollution, disease, and global warming. In an age of nuclear weapons, rapidly depleting resources, and religious warfare, people as well as frogs seem poised at the brink of destruction.

Paulus calls into question the ideologies of his time. Drawings of studio lamps in Darkness suggest that the discerning eye of an artist is enough to shed light on any matter — no blinding visions, no celestial light required.

Jennifer Barnett Hensel takes contour drawing to the edge of chaos — lines that loop into swarms of flies, a child blowing soap bubbles, tentacles sprouting from biomorphs, blood corpusules floating in a blue sea, and iron-rich earth morphing into rabbit ears and phalluses.

Barnett Hensel's call-and-responses between the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds suggest a universal consciousness. Her strongest paintings look like visual equivalents for lines from Dylan Thomas: "The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower ... blasts the roots of trees ... drives the water through the rocks ... drives my red blood."

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