Heating Up 

The sexy works of Nancy Bickerest and Bryan Blankenship at Cooper-Young Gallery.

Just in time to kick off the steamy season, a sexy exhibit at the Cooper-Young Gallery pairs the bathhouse eroticism of Bryan Blankenship with the delicacies of irises and lilies found in the work of Nancy Bickerest.

Bickerest is among several artists in the region exploring nonobjective photography to one degree or another, pushing the medium beyond the realm of documentation into the ephemeral world of light and color. Originally trained as a painter, the artist took up photography to gather resource images but soon discovered that the medium had much to offer in its own right. Bickerest uses a macro lens to capture the minutiae of budding flowers, rich in supple forms and imbued with pungent primary and secondary hues.

The artist is particularly fond of the drama gained from a shallow depth of field, in which details, such as the serrated edge of a flower petal in hibiscus syricus, emerge from a nebulous blur of saturated hues. Gladiolus transports the viewer into a microcosmic domain resembling a fractal image; out of a sea of orange, lemon, eggplant, and lime, the stamen juts into the focal plane. This method heightens the carnal aspect, especially in works like iris prismatic, in which the focal point is the particulars of the openings, folds, and crevices of the subject, cast in a radiant yellow and luscious blue light.

Bickerest displays her C-prints standard-issue: double-mat, black ribbon frame, under glass. Perhaps I have been spoiled by offerings in which the conventional mount has been abandoned in favor of methods that contextualize nonobjective photographs more as paintings. The mats and frames around Bickerest's work seem an ill fit. The glass is especially troublesome in one of several photos titled lilium 'star gazer,' a beautiful image of a flower emerging from a black ground -- if only one can find the angle at which the bric-a-brac from the next room is not reflected across its surface.

That being said, the images are captivating in color and form, and one can linger for quite some time on these landscapes, which are just a few centimeters deep.

While the fertile subject matter of flowers is by its very nature sensual, nothing suggests that Bickerest intended to make erotic images. On the other hand, Bryan Blankenship's tongue is thrust squarely in his cheek for his "receptacle" series. What appear at first glance to be innocent geometric abstractions are in fact symbolic fetishes signifying gender-specific body parts. But what really drives up the temperature is that the artist uses the vernacular of a decaying bathhouse, replete with trompe l'oeil mildew stains, mineral deposits, grimy porcelain, and yellowed grout. The resulting mixed-media works are equal parts Rauschenberg raunch, bathroom humor, and Home Depot know-how.

One such, um, piece is receptacle #3, a rectangular composition that incorporates shoddy paneling, faux stained and yellowed tile, and other signs of mucky decay with an inset panel containing a slit above a drain hole. If not careful, one is likely to miss, among the yuk-yuks, the absolute command that Blankenship has over his materials. His use of encaustic here is delightful, creating an equivalent to the look of glazed bathroom tile, in a dated minty green. Looking at Blankenship's convincing rendition of decomposition and swelter reminds me of Greg Haller's stint making unbelievably realistic pictures depicting wretched brick walls, complete with graffiti and dirty windows.

Of course, Blankenship is not simply interested in memorializing decomposing facades; rather a seediness is exaggerated by the combination of tactile sensation and (not so subtly) veiled crotch humor. In the aforementioned receptacle #3, the artist goes for the gold as a yellow bead of beeswax drains out of the slit and crawls down the concave orifice below it (nasty boy). The work next to it, receptacle #4, is obviously its, er, mate, as similar elements have been combined to create an iconic phallus.

Just so you know, Blankenship is not completely obsessed with you-know-what. Untitled offers sanctuary from the sexual innuendo but is still very much interested in decay. It also uses trompe l'oeil sleight of hand to create a balloon pattern one might find in a toddler's room, except this happy motif is mired by rows of dripping stains and soiled wallpaper. One gets the idea that this paradoxical juxtaposition represents innocence sullied.

If you are not prudish, the works are a delight to behold. But if you are, Blankenship is also exhibiting some very innocuous pottery with not a crease or crevice that's the least bit suggestive. But I can't go into that, as I could use a cold shower.

Through June 16th.

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