Work by Margaret Cogswell and Tad Lauritzen Wright.

In the Art Museum of the University of Memphis' current installation "Mississippi River Fugues," Margaret Cogswell turns river sagas and Greek drama into powerful 21st-century archetypes.

DVD players inside hand-crafted copper-and-tin lanterns hang in AMUM's antechamber. There's footage of candles flickering on and off and voices fading in and out, telling stories about life on and along the Mississippi. A man talks about the river's depth, another describes moving a barge over a sand bar, and a third talks about the earlier paths of the Mississippi.

Inside the darkened museum, oscillating buoys cast beams of light that flow in fugue-like patterns, weaving in and out and building upon one another. The spotlights also tell stories about the Delta and the river. We can make out moving images of the moon breaking through the mist, Caterpillar harvesters scooping up mouthfuls of cotton, planes dusting fields with insecticides, fields burning, and startled cattle racing across the landscape. Audiotaped sounds of the river grow louder and louder. A six-foot-long galvanized ductwork sculpture writhes in the middle of the museum floor like a prehistoric predator, its wide-open mouth lined with metal spades.

A video of a naked man projected onto the face of a massive wheel adds elements of Greek myth to the mix. Unceasingly, the man trudges on a treadmill that appears to turn the wheel. Like Sisyphus trying to roll a boulder uphill, the man's relentless labor feels numbing but not particularly productive.

Cogswell asks us to feel the bite, the shadow side of modernity: nature out of balance and raging, humankind's relentless drive for profit and power, and technology's capacity to enhance the earth and destroy it. Cogswell invites us to stop spinning our wheels, to get off the treadmill, to consider the crossroads at which we stand.

click to enlarge Margaret Cogswell's "Mississippi River Fugues": nature out of balance
  • Margaret Cogswell's "Mississippi River Fugues": nature out of balance

"Mississippi River Fugues" at AMUM through November 1st

In David Lusk Gallery's current exhibition, "The Fun Show," Tad Lauritzen Wright replays the stories and sensory impressions of a lifetime. On the wall to our left, a grinning, snaggle-toothed boy stands in the nose of a jet plane taking off at a 45-degree angle. Lauritzen Wright's 6-year-old alter ego takes us on an adventure filled with playgrounds, amusement parks, cross-country road trips, camping, and trips to the big city.

Lauritzen Wright replays childhood with two art forms. In the first, single-line, child-like drawings of objects and figures weave across large blank canvases. In these, Lauritzen Wright captures the wide-open possibilities of youth and the way memories flow in streams of consciousness, fluid and interconnected.

Lauritzen Wright also recreates childhood with large mix-media paintings. Grids of colorful squares with porous boundaries allow ideas and images to flow into one another. Aliens, fire-spewing dragons, and redheads play on top of train cars that roar across the bottom of Planned Distraction. The Empire State Building thrusts its way up the right side of the painting between traffic cops, flying saucers, checkered taxis, patchwork quilts, and a blond girl's blue tears, which fill a small lake floating a couple of tug boats.

Another part of the painting combines elements of the story of William Tell with Goldilocks and Eve in the Garden, as a girl with one long lock of gold for hair looks out at the viewer with eyes as green as the apple that sits on top of her head.

By turns sassy, sardonic and richly symbolic, Lauritzen Wright's endless cast of comic-book and Saturday-morning cartoon characters play out syntheses of legend, fairy tale, Bible story, fantasy, and sci-fi that take cartooning to the level of fine art.

"The Fun Show"at David Lusk Gallery through October 25th

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