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SHADOW AND LIGHT: Anne Elliott's "In and Out the Window," one of the works on display in the WPA Gallery at the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, through March 5.

Investigations in an Empty Room Arts Council of Princeton

Stuart Mitchner

One day last week the WPA gallery at the Arts Council of Princeton was empty. The walls were hung, the room was furnished, in a manner of speaking, but no one was there. All the restrictive formal aspects associated with galleries and museums were absent. It was like walking into a deserted house. Here was a table set for four, over there a dressing table, with a mirror. And twenty framed pictures on the wall. The emptiness of the room seemed almost eerie.

Since this is not what you expect when you walk into an art exhibit, your first instinct is to investigate the scene, to wonder not so much about the aesthetic quality of this or that piece but about what sort of family might occupy this space, use these objects, choose to live with these paintings. In fact, this line of thinking accords with the title of the exhibit – "Domestic Expectations and Upheavals" – and the intentions of the artists, Anne Elliott, who produced the paintings, and Kimberly West, who made the ceramics. Ms West teaches ceramics at the Arts Council and Ms. Elliott is a graphics designer at Town Topics. Both artists are admittedly preoccupied with the gap between expectations and reality.

Present, the painting Anne Elliott chose to represent her work (available on a post card), might lead you to expect a soft and cuddly sequence of family snapshots. What could be softer and cuddlier than a child and her pet? After you see what's happening in some of the other paintings, however, you may come back for another look, to make sure the dog isn't taking a bite out of the little girl's ear. You may also wonder if maybe the adult hand seen giving the present might actually be trying to restrain it.

But speaking of expectations, what sort would be encouraged by the domestic scene Ms. West has created and arranged? Without looking at the pictures on the wall, you might imagine a typical, if somewhat eccentric, American family. On the plates set out for the invisible inhabitants, for example, among the human figures featured in the center of each plate are a cowgirl, a cowboy, a ballerina in repose, a boy in shorts mowing the lawn, a boy with a baseball bat, a girl singing, boys playing football. Sports, music, performance. American values. The daughter sings and dances, the boy plays ball. The effect has more in common with Judy Chicago than Norman Rockwell, however. For one thing the playful, forthrightly homemade aspect of the ceramics is out of line with the mass-market, middle American stereotype. And if you look closely, you find that the mugs seem to provide playful captions for each of the plates they go with. The boy with the bat is "American Swinger." The boy mowing the lawn: "Honey Do." As for the girl singing (or is she?): "We all scream." And what about the faces? No freckles and dimples or smiles. No nothing. All the faces are blank. Why? So people can imagine the features and expressions for themselves just as they can imagine what might or might not be going on in the paintings on the walls.

Then you come to the dressing table and the ceramic toilet articles, an atomizer, a tissue box, along with a waste basket. The decal featured on these objects – quaintly sexy imagery of a smiling woman in high heels and black stockings – evokes the pre-Playboy girlie magazine of the 1940s and 1950s. This male-oriented image in a female environment (the artist calls it "The Powder Room Series") somewhat complicates the question of domestic identity – a question that is also relevant to the imagery on the walls.

Couples are predominant in Ms. Elliott's work, which she composes on a computer, prints on treated paper, and then paints with acrylic paint and envisions in terms of "emotional landscapes" in which expectations are confounded more often than they are gratified. Edward and Georgina are in appropriate proximity to the racy toiletries – he's kissing her ankle. Xavier and Simone are exotic and bohemian, like their names. The scale in these pairings is intense and concentrated, in order, in the artist's words, "to maintain the intimacy." If Marsha and Hank were on a larger scale, the effect would be downright scary; this is a fierce couple on some razor's-edge extreme between hilarity and hysteria: you can imagine the relationship as a time-bomb. Ms. Elliott's stated intention is to get people to imagine scenarios for these ambiguous situations. Perhaps Marsha and Hank are literally madly in love. But what about the smiling husband who has apparently tumbled or been pushed out of bed by his sullen wife in Her Bedroom?

The acrylics incorporating paper collage, Family Life: Rick & Liddy and The Ghost of the Girdle are accompanied by images of actual wreckage. "They fight, They make up, She drinks some more, And eats even less" are the words the artist has written as a commentary to Family Life. While the two masters who come to mind most often when looking at Ms. Elliott's work are Matisse and Bonnard, her darkest and most striking paintings suggest an emotional landscape closer to Goya's battlefield or De Chirico's world of stark shadows. For a confounding of expectations, how about Baby Carriage? True, this baby carriage does resemble the real thing, except for the spectral aura that makes it seem more the skeleton of one, and the orange flash of what looks like war flaring in the sky beyond it, and the fact that the shadowy human figure dominating the picture appears to be a soldier holding a cigarette.

Probably the most ambitious and accomplished work on display is In and Out the Window. It stands alone, both in size and style. Like Baby Carriage, it reaches beyond the domestic context of the exhibit's title. In style, it is austere and near-surreal (the DeChirico shadows) compared to the more playful, colorful, impressionistic ambience of most of Ms. Elliott's other work, including Merry-go-round, which, however, does play on expectations associated with that word by depicting a playground merry-go-round beautifully but perhaps eternally consumed by overgrowth.

Whatever your expectations, the emotional landscape on view at the Arts Council will be there to be pondered and explored through Friday, March 5. WPA Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.


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