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Four shows, six artists, eight powerful works of art.

Pinkney Herbert, Alpha

Pinkney Herbert, Alpha

For "A Delicate Balance," the mixed-media installation in the ArtLab at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, Colin Kidder and John Morgan turn toy balloons into fine art. They bend, twist, wrap, and blow rubber balloons into amalgams of vegetable and animal life as they explore what happens when nature's delicate balance is poisoned, globally warmed, and irradiated almost to extinction.

The only recognizable creatures in their post-apocalyptic jungle are the hummingbirds Kidder and Morgan have sculpted from Polymer clay. While the birds' tufted bodies and wing feathers are still intact, their beaks are now pointed metal darts sharp enough to pierce the rubbery hides.

And it looks like they'll be needing them as they hover and dart just beyond the reach of the hundreds of deep-purple, opalescent-orange, and electric-blue tentacles that reach out from the walls or scurry across ArtLab's floor dragging what look like smooth pink intestines — turned inside out — behind them. Their bellies are stretched to the point of bursting as these phosphorescent, toxic creatures allure and then poison unsuspecting prey.

As edgy as they are instructive, Kidder and Morgan's original, beautiful, and topical mutants make "A Delicate Affair" a must-see exhibition.

Through February 27th

In Pinkney Herbert's four large pastel drawings at Playhouse on the Square, energy builds, coalesces into increasingly complex shapes, and culminates in a 100-by-125-inch pastel titled Alpha, one of the most inventive works of Herbert's career.

A softly glowing, sable shadow, hovering in the background, sucks us in as we are swept across the surface by a spinning serpent. Something more profound is suggested by the serpent's huge, hinged mouth, its deeply furrowed green forehead crowned with tufts of feathers or leaves, and the threadlike umbilical chord that loosely ties the free-floating shadow (womb? black hole?) to the creature's belly where large black spermatozoa gestate. Herbert has assembled characters from several creation stories including Mesoamerica's Quetzalcoatl, the British Isles' Green Man, and the male and female principles of Shiva, the Hindu god dancing the world into existence.

Mounted in Playhouse on the Square's impressive new performance and gallery space, Alpha can be read as metaphor for all artists (playwrights, actors, musicians) attempting to shape new ideas and new art forms out of the primordial stew.

Through February 22nd

Christian Brothers University's current exhibition "Raw Silk" provides viewers with the opportunity to see the collages and silk paintings of two accomplished fabric artists working at the top of their form.

It's late autumn in Japanese Torii, Contance Grayson's most evocative collage, in which hundreds of pieces of kimono and Japanese money, stamps, advertising flyers, and vintage postcards are layered and stitched into a deeply textured tapestry of the gardens, sea coast, mountains, and Shinto shrines of Japan. Grayson take us through the gate of a shrine into the courtyard beyond where a tiny figure (the only human presence in the piece) meditates in the garden.

Phyllis Boger's dyes and resist on silk include crisp, colorful, child-like geometries of Italian hill towns and translucent mosaics. But Boger's most moving and strikingly beautiful work is Procession.

A weathered copper roof tops a sagging, deep-red facade. Three hooded figures, completely in shadow, stand on mottled royal-blue and teal tiles. One of the figures raises his cloaked arms and gives thanks for the tiny windows of light, umber woods, and rolling fields that border his town. Deep-green and raw-sienna shadows swirling inside the penitent suggest that, instead of merely going through the motions, he deeply feels the ritual he performs.

Through March 11th

Elisha Gold is best known for his metal sculpture, such as the nine-foot sunflower planted at Memphis Botanic Garden whose face is covered with 700 rounds of ammunition instead of seeds.

For Gallery Fifty Six's current show "Forgive Your Enemies," Gold has mounted a series of paintings that are as sardonic, socially conscious, and politically astute as his sculpture. 

Replete with Ben-Day dots and comic-book-inspired scenes of military battle and beautiful women, Gold's slick and crisp-edged enamel paintings are, in part, homage to Roy Lichtenstein. In Gold's particularly chilling portrait of cynicism and presumed superiority, a socialite raises her glass of champagne and toasts the viewer with the work's title, It's True. The Bigger the Lie, the More Believe.

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