Poetic artworks can get under your skinBy Michael O'Sullivan Friday, April 6, 2012

Hamiltonian Gallery's latest exhibition, a tightly focused spotlight on up-and-comers Jenny Mullins and Sarah Knobel, is all about surface. But it's what lies beneath that's more interesting in this thoughtful pairing.

Knobel explores the idea of superficiality in "Recover," which includes a group of photos, video animations and an installation. The punning title alludes both to self-help and the notion of a second skin, in images that show the artist's body, both bare and covered with tiny scraps of paper.

The scraps come from origami cranes, which in Japanese culture symbolize hope for the future. The ritual of folding 1,000 paper cranes - which Knobel has almost literally done - is a kind of performance art as well as a kind of prayer.

My absolute favorite piece of hers, therefore, is simultaneously the simplest and the most profound. Called "Unfolded," it's an installation of 999 scraps of paper - exactly one less than the requisite 1,000 - that have been folded into cranes and then carefully unfolded. Stacked in five neat piles in one corner of the gallery, they're a potent metaphor for a wish that has come tantalizingly close to fulfillment but has been deliberately left undone. They represent the trappings - and the pitfalls - of spirituality without spirit.

Mullins's approach is more traditional but no less poetic. A talented draftsman, she renders nature - a stag, two wolves and several flowers - in a series of meticulous pencil drawings that contrast her subjects' outward beauty with a disturbing sense of decay. "Royal Pine" and "Morning Fresh," for instance, feature pictures of wolves - the kind you see on hipster T-shirts - on which the artist has hung real car air fresheners, like dog tags. Also, flies have landed on the wolves' haunches, just as they have on Mullins's flowers.

In the flower pictures, the flies are also studded with real rhinestones, to garish (and probably unnecessary) effect.

There's an element of vanitas symbolism in Mullins's show, which is called "Gold for the Price of Silver" and which the artist has described as a critique of American consumerism and excess. That old art-historical trick - seen most often in still lifes of the 16th and 17th centuries - uses pictures of live flowers and the bounty of the harvest to hint at their opposites: death and scarcity.

It's essentially the same trick that monologuist Mike Daisey used in his theatrical show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." In that show, which returns to Woolly Mammoth this summer for a brief remounting, Daisey contrasted our love for Apple's gorgeous devices with thoughts about how they're made.

Mullins's work never feels didactic or scolding. There's no tone of schoolmarmish superiority here. If she wants us to contemplate the rot that hides behind the beautiful things we crave, it's only because she craves them, too.

By Michael O'Sullivan Friday, April 6, 2012The centerpiece of Jenny Mullins's "Gold for the Price of Silver" - the title comes from what she calls a "repurposed" Kings of Convenience song - is a large drawing of a wounded stag whose guts have spilled out to reveal a cascade of items. Trash, carryout containers and a cellphone commingle with an eruption of colorful flowers.The details, which are beautifully rendered, come from sculptures of stags by the 19th-century French artist Antoine-Louis Barye, who is famous for his bronze animals in torment. Ten arrowlike reflective traffic markers stick out of the animal's flesh, turning him into a kind of furry martyr.

The message is powerful but hard to put into words. Does the stag represent the tortured artist? Society? Despoiled nature? An ideal of beauty?

Mullins's visual associations don't have a one-to-one correspondence. She works intuitively, teasing multiple meanings out of a thicket of signifiers. The piece is both tragic and kind of funny.

The contradictions are deliberate. Mullins, who found most of the contents of the stag's intestines lying on her studio floor, is simultaneously aware of the environmental impact of her actions and powerless to stop it. "I drive an SUV," she says, "because I can't afford a Prius."