Reality Check 

Seven artists tell it like it is.

To understand artist Keren Kroul's curatorial approach to "Identity Crisis," the current exhibition at Marshall Arts, it helps to recall To Fly Away, the large work she created for "Max: 03" at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. Kroul used hundreds of tiny handmade paper figures to depict her feelings about childbirth. Some of the figures flew up to the ceiling of the gallery. Dozens more pooled onto the floor in the corner of the room. For "Identity Crisis," Kroul has gathered together seven artists whose search for meaning is as complex and playfully irreverent as her own.

At first glance, Courtney Ulrich's two large digital photographs look like gray stoneworks from the pages of National Geographic. On the left is the straight-postured torso of an African tribeswoman, unclothed except for a braided cloth belt. On the right are the torso and thighs of the Stone Age Venus of Willendorf or some other talisman carved to ensure fertility and abundant crops. A closer look tells us that the belly overhanging the braided belt in Abdominal Apron has been "civilized" with years of eating Twinkies and watching television. In Folding Space, Venus' prayer for bounty has become an out-of-control consumption of food. As obesity fast approaches the position of number-one killer of Americans, Ulrich's digital simulations of fat carved into stone become disquietingly appropriate 21st-century icons.

To appreciate Immersion: Dialogue, Carole Loeffler's small fabric and fur sculptures, it helps to get down on the floor next to the headless creature with an anteater's snout. Across from you is an entity that has been reduced to an arm with claws. Hanging from the ceiling is a plush fire-engine-red hot dog with tentacles. This is what the world looks like to a 1-year-old whose senses are wide-open.

William O'Brien's contributions to "Identity Crisis" are amateurish and cheaply framed. This is deliberate. The artist has adopted his 12-year-old self to revisit a bittersweet adolescence. His untitled installation contains drawings and paintings of varsity basketball players, Boy Scouts, same-sex puppy loves, a recurring motif of eyes weeping blue tears, and pop stars with identity issues of their own. With cathedrals built out of mountains of phalluses topped with tiny crosses, O'Brien tells us about his conflict between moral imperative and burgeoning teenage sexuality. At the center of his installation is an abstract painting of free-flowing waves of multihued pink. With these 31 small drawings and paintings on paper, O'Brien is time-traveling, offering his younger self a chance to express himself honestly.

Megan Reed and Kamilla Talbot approach the concept of self from opposite ends of the spectrum. Reed explores the mutable nature of identity and memory with "Anatomy," a series of photographs taken in a moving car and then blown up to further abstract color and shape such as in her work Green. Talbot describes her oils on linen and canvas as a record "expressing the authenticity of her experience in the world." The artist presents an explosion of color and pattern in an outcropping of rock (Black Pool) and the twists and bends in the stalk of a flower (Daisy).

Other notable works in the show include Brad Hampton's phosphorescent Reference Man, a computer-generated anthropomorphic glob of primary colors that Hampton laminated and mounted onto an acrylic panel. This mutable creature could be humankind's alter ego in a possible future where we are all able to handle life's crises with the shape-shifting facility of a Saturday-morning cartoon character.

Anne Gaines' vivid oils on linen -- Studio View, Right Window, Studio View, Left Window, and Brooklyn Rooftop, NW Corner -- depict the rooftops and buildings of a somewhat dilapidated Brooklyn neighborhood that she and her friends have turned into an artists' community. Like Hampton's Reference Man, Gaines' buildings are also shape-shifters. Chimneys, clapboards, and metal pipes taper in and out, and wavy lines suggest sagging shingles and warping wood. But they also suggest energy emanating from the buildings where some of Gaines' neighbors, like the participants in "Identity Crisis," are creating their own statements about life. •

"Identity Crisis" at Delta Axis @ Marshall Arts through October 23rd

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