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art: The Art in Death

Three Miles Gallery unevenly celebrates death with "Los Dias de Los Muertos."


Curators Chris Humes, John Haddad and Eryn Feinsod clearly had these qualities in mind when they chose works - mostly multimedia assemblages in the form of altars - by 12 local artists for "Los Dias de Los Muertos." This show at Three Miles Gallery runs through Nov. 24. The exhibit offers an eclectic body of work, inspired by the Mexican holiday, by both Hispanic and non-Hispanic artists. Unfortunately, the works are wildly uneven, resulting in a show that only half delivers on its promising pancultural concept.

Most of the work has a thrown-together, folksy quality, reminiscent of "outsider art" as well as the 20th century "fine art" tradition of transforming junk into poetic sculptural objects.

Its virtues are contrasting brashness and temperance.

There are gaudy pieces on the edge of taste such as "Basil Come Back" — Susannah Raine-Haddad's glitzy, defiantly sentimental cigar box tribute to a dead cat — as well as more conventional works like John Haddad's neatly framed, atmospheric photographs that document cemeteries around the world. But for every hit, there's a miss: The tacky high polish of "Eternally Elvis," Ruth Farrall's craft-store shrine to The King, can't transcend its tired subject matter; and "Smiley," Frederick Chiriboga's large oil painting of a grinning skull, seems out of place and melodramatic beside so much junk art.

"Lamp," another work by Chiriboga, fares better. In it, a small figure of the crucified Jesus — surmounted on a red-stained plank of wood above a burning copper lamp — is smothered under a square of black leather, which is nailed in place with wooden pegs. Its economy of means and tight design give the work formal strength, but Chiriboga can't wring anything new or substantial from his clichéd content (presumably something about sublimated fetishism and sadomasochism in Christian iconography), ultimately leaving "Lamp" limp: provocative — yes, profound — no.

More successful is a subtler work by Thea Duskin called "No Se Encienda Nunca Sin Vigilancia (roughly: 'Never Light Up without Keeping an Eye on It')." Like "Lamp," "No Se Encendia" is an altar in the form of a wall-hanging assemblage, but Duskin forgoes Chiriboga's frontal attack for seductive understatement. Consisting of a small, coffinlike mahogany box with copper mesh "windows," covered and filled with prosaic objects — dried roses, a chunk of cracked block glass, tiny brass nails, a cross formed from two welded iron rods, a lit candle which casts glimmering shadows through a water-filled glass ball — Duskin's piece delights with its graceful design and delicate details.

Duskin's piece is the most successful work in the show. It approaches the sublime mystery and poetic charge, as well as the extraordinary craftsmanship, of modern masters of assemblage like Joseph Cornell, H.C. Westerman, and especially Joe Brainard — whose gentle votivelike wall sculptures constructed of Prell bottles and plastic Madonnas are recalled here.

Somber yet whimsical, Duskin's piece successfully evokes in equal parts reverence, revelry and scorn. Unfortunately, most of the other work in "Los Dias de Los Muertos" settles for just one or two of the above. S

"Los Dias de Los Muertos" is showing at Three Miles Gallery, 1 W. Broad St., through Nov. 24. Call 677-1151 for information.

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