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Material World

"EnvironMental" re-examines our surroundings.


"EnvironMental" — curated by Kimberly Conrad, gallery assistant and master of arts candidate, along with Ron Johnson, an artist and assistant professor of painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University — comprises the work of six recent graduates of VCU's master of fine arts program. They were selected for their ability to construct "environments" that transcend the "ordinary scope of perception," according to a statement issued for the show. The three photographers featured — Sun Tek Chung, Todd Dobbs and Bryan Steiff — all exhibit environments that are cinematic and artificial but conceptually rooted in reality.

Chicago-based Steiff has manipulated lighting, focus and camera angle to transform close-ups of commonplace electronic equipment into cityscapes in his three 32- by 40-inch prints. In the ominous "Terra Futura #12," a red spotlight bears down on an industrial-looking circuit board. Rising above the circuitry is what appears to be either a computer tower or a skyscraper. Steiff's work has a future-as-imagined-from-the-past quality and is reminiscent of the set design in Terry Gilliam's 1985 sci-fi film, "Brazil."

Chung, a Richmonder, is known for photographing himself acting out a variety of comically absurd personas. He contributes two pieces to the show. (His work is also featured in "Relativity" at Anderson Gallery.) One of the prints, "Suburban Fury," has Chung placed in front of a fake-sky backdrop amid orderly tufts of grass. Part Hugh Beaumont, part Hunter S. Thompson, Chung's character stands sneering and ready to strike with the weightless armloads of lawn-care equipment.

While Chung uses caricature to flesh out his version of reality, Dobbs uses metaphor. The only overtly political work in the show, Dobbs' two digital photographs are from a series in which painted toy-soldier protagonists, symbolizing the polarized red and blue America, confront various shadowy enemies.

Megan Biddle, Emily Hall and Sayaka Suzuki all contribute site-specific installations that make use (or reuse) of expendable material. Oregon Hill resident Emily Hall makes reference to her neighborhood in a work titled "Possibly in August, See you next to Pine Street!" The mixed-media piece is made up of nine hollow wooden compartments, mounted on the wall with colored sticks and filled with a variety of stuff, including yarn, sheets of plastic, sand and feathers. Conveying the organized rhythm of the city grid contrasted with the byproducts of city life, the work encourages the viewer to examine it from all angles.

Richmonder Megan Biddle's plaster "Skinscape II" is a nice segue between Hall's work and her own "Untitled" piece. Like Hall's apartment complex in miniature, Biddle's painstakingly carved minicaverns in a white plaster block emphasize simultaneously both interior and exterior. Biddle's "Untitled" was created by layering countless pieces of delicate, semitransparent wax on paper chips and shaping it into a large winglike form. Appearing to grow in the gallery, the featherlike material continues on another wall, creating a positive/negative spatial relationship.

Local sculptor Sayaka Suzuki provides the most literal interpretation of environment with her installation "Blue Room," which is divided from the rest of the gallery by a curtain. A sign asks visitors to remove their shoes before entering the room, as is customary when entering a Japanese residence. Once inside, visitors are surrounded by reams of used copy paper — spray-painted light blue and affixed to the walls, ceiling and floor. Intended as a meditative retreat, "Blue Room" also reminds us that even the most ubiquitous and wasted material can be used to construct a space. S

"EnvironMental" is showing at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., through Aug. 26.

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