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Dreams or Nightmares?

A new exhibit excavates the imagination with haunting results.


Taking this quote as her organizing principle, curator Gwen Van Ostern has assembled a strong set of works — rooted in surrealism, symbolism and romanticism in general — that can’t possibly answer Bryant’s question, but does offer an engaging tour of its terrain.

In Jennifer Cox’s vibrant oil paintings, capably painted in a stylized realism, female figures interact mysteriously with natural settings. Her vivid dreamscapes dominate the exhibit, but their impact is lessened through overexposure — for no clear reason her paintings outnumber those of the other artists. Regardless, her strongest works — particularly a suite of small, lyrical paintings that show fragments of statuary scattered among flowers, tall grass and tree roots — are haunting snapshots of dreams.

Freya Grand’s large, horizontal paintings of lonely outdoor scenes are atmospheric evocations of ambiguous moods. Although she’s part of a lineage of brooding landscape painters that begins with artists like Turner and Friedrich, the cool flatness and image-cropping in her work are distinctly modern. Her masterful manipulation of color harmonies and canny brushwork repeatedly lead the viewer’s eye across the surface of her paintings, where it soaks up oneiric impressions in a simulation of what the artist calls “the dizzy sway of a dream suddenly remembered.”

Anna Golden’s mixed-media paintings are far more gestural. Essayed in a childlike expressionism of crude figure drawing, intense color and passages of dripped paint, her work seems steeped less in dreams than in myth and fairy tale. Indeed, a trio of smallish paintings is explicitly linked to Baba Yaga, the nightmare hag of Russian folklore who lives in a bizarre “hut on fowl’s legs” — a dark fairyland dwelling that Golden paints in “Witch House.” For some reason, Golden has only four works in “Image” — one wishes she had more.

The exhibit’s two remaining artists construct complex, stream-of-consciousness images that explicitly recall surrealism. In Mark Bryant’s exquisite watercolors, biomorphic shapes — trees, labial folds, extended tonguelike protuberances — are fused into inscrutable configurations that suggest both scientific and occult iconographies. Especially effective are four paintings wherein a female torso, a planetlike sphere covered with eyes, and a series of floating rings mingle in a set of variations on an unknowable theme. The clearly defined but incomprehensible imagery evokes the rush of vivid, unfathomable visuals that flash through the mind just before sleep.

Wolfgang Jasper’s labor-intensive charcoal drawings are similar. Intensely weird, they, too, are packed with disturbing, sensual shapes — grinning mouths, sutured wounds, fried eggs and hairy heads. These mutate into one another inside claustrophobic compositions filled with visual puns and rhymes. “How does one effectively communicate a state of mind that is forever changing?” asks the artist in the exhibit notes. His drawings suggest one solution.

“The Humiliation of Empty Pleasures” is typical. Below a vaguely defined figure — partially formed by the head and rubbery neck of a bird — we see open-mouthed animals that crane their necks skyward as if singing or trying to nurse. One of them — a goatlike creature — mouths someone’s buttocks, while nearby a pair of obscenely swollen lips grows out of a head of hair.

This is classic surrealism — full of deadpan humor, irrational juxtapositions and psychosexual imagery that suggest the exhibit’s strongest link to the movement. Surrealism was founded on a fantasy of absolute freedom that is eternal and deeply human. Jasper’s is the earthiest celebration of the imaginative powers of the unconscious found in “Imagined Image.”

Not coincidentally, his work steals the show.

But it has stiff competition. “The Imagined Image” is full of bold pieces — flashes of vision declared with conviction and rendered in detail, not wispy vagaries mired in ambiguity and imprecision. Inspired by past art movements, representational, with nary a video monitor nor a digital print in sight, it is, in many ways, an old-fashioned show. But accusations of cultural conservatism are belied by the confident articulation and sheer force of each artist’s vision — qualities that argue persuasively that the unconscious mind is an inexhaustible source for artists, one that knows no fashion and favors no medium. S

“The Imagined Image” runs through Oct. 2 at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road. Call 261-6200.

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