Seeing isn’t always believing

A work by Stephen Lipman.

“Scenes Believing,” the current exhibition at the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Arts, is an exquisite show of work by four artists whose diversity of style and medium cast fresh aspersions on the power of art’s illusions and the rippling resonances of meaning that derive from the juxtaposition of unlike images. Each artist presents a convincing illusion even as that illusion is undermined, creating a kind of echo chamber of infinitely nuanced meanings.

The earthy, splotchy pigments of Christy Rupp’s papier-mâché animals and their crisp, exquisitely wrought three-dimensional forms — she sculpts papier-mâché around a stainless-steel framework — have an instant appeal. They draw attention to an ominous ecological crisis: the infiltration into the environment of toxic chemicals. In each piece, a harmful chemical is represented through a series of spheres that depicts their molecular structure. The pesticide Roundup, for example, is represented by a complicated cluster of red, black, white and ochre spheres, the steel framework of which connects the white form of a tuft of cotton to a boll weevil. (Rupp, who divides her time between Saugerties and New York, explained that the chemical has actually been genetically modified to be produced within the cotton plant, adding to fears of its potential harm.) In another piece, in which two frogs are connected by the latticework and three pearly spheres of an ozone molecule, it takes a moment to realize one has five legs, a deformity associated with the chemical’s toxic effects.

Gus Mueller also draws on aspects of science in his work. The allegorical painting Panspermia, which depicts a small sphere in space covered with floral growth, is a bowered Eden backlit with the white aura from a half-obscured sun. It was inspired by the theory, also called panspermia, that microorganisms are transported through space on asteroids and rocky planets between solar systems and galaxies. The small canvas, whose richness of color and form is enhanced by the underlying black ground, plays with scale, transforming scientific hypothesis into sensory experience. Flowering plants are identifiable on the planet’s surface, while trees ring the form, silhouetted by the light and telling their own evolutionary story. The contrast of near and far, the olfactory and purely visual, convey a dream-like sense.

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Mueller, who lives in Hurley and works as a web developer, used a photograph from a psychology textbook in his other most compelling work, Shortcut from the Yard Sale: a child clutching a Pinocchio puppet gazes out of the canvas from a cobblestone walk framed on either side by a forest of dead-looking trees. The ambiguity of the psychically charged image accounts for the picture’s force. “It feels like a fable,” Mueller said. “You don’t know the details, but the mind fills them in” — suggesting, for example, a coming-of-age fable or a tale of blighted innocence.

While Mueller’s work is infused with dark romanticism, Robin Tewes’ paintings hint at a feminist-charged irony, the intimate stage sets of which are charged with suspense, recalling Magritte. The drapes hanging in her windows are redolent of lower middle-class propriety, but the woman flashing her nude body from her pulled-back coat in I Am Who You Are sends a contradictory message. Is she liberated, defiant of the trappings of the tidy bourgeois setting, or representative of the secret desires and passions repressed in these conventional interiors? All I Want Is my Equal, which features a younger nude woman gazing into the living room from outside the window, is similarly ambiguous. The pinkish salmon color and heavy folds of the drapes, the flowers on the table that coyly camouflage the woman’s pubis, and the swooping shapes of the armchair suggest a feminine physical presence made overt by the nude. They reveal a sweet, latent eroticism held in check by the rigid geometries of the window sill, corner walls, and table legs.

“I’m interested in how the personal is universal and political,” said Tewes, who lives in New York City. “It’s where all change can happen. Rooms are places we create to protect ourselves from the outside world, but inside that room, anything can happen.”

Stephen Lipman covers pairs of pages from an old family Bible, which he rescued from his mother’s doorstep, with simple, graphic images that “take logic apart to find mystery,” a strategy that “relates to the Bible,” he said. “Logic is a matter of faith.” Lipman’s process involves a combination of drawing and printing, including manipulation through scanning and copying on a computer. It lends each image an uncanny richness and hallucinatory presence on the faded pages. The artist creates a kind of language, related to the spiritual and historical force of the Bible, which reveals the nature of illusion while affirming its own truth.

One issue has to with the authorship of the pieces themselves — a theme that certainly relates to the Bible, the complexity of authorship of which is unrivaled in Western history. Many of the images are taken from other sources, which in some cases are themselves appropriated. “I love this idea of taking all this information involving a lot of people and becoming part of that process,” said Lipman, who was raised Irish Catholic in the Bronx, where he still lives.

Some of Lipman’s diptychs depict Christian martyrs undergoing various kinds of torture, which he said he can relate to, given the sacrifices required in being an artist. The images, which he alters, often into a figure of abiding grace, also convey the fragility and mortality of the body. Other images are based on his drawings of a tornado, which are then scanned and flipped for a mirror image on the adjoining page (an effect that never could be achieved by drawing, which is another reference to the power of illusion, he said).

The depiction of a man with a bandaged head shows the truth of a “blindfold, in that it stops the illusion of seeing”; its twin, in which a pair of arms grab a similarly profiled head, transforms an instructional image on how to bandage a head into a cheeky metaphor for divine intervention, which relates to the illusion of willpower. “Because I’m human there’s certain things I do whether I like it or not,” said Lipman.

“Scenes Believing” will be on display until Nov. 24. KMOCA, located at 103 Abeel St., is open on Saturdays from noon to four or by appointment.

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