The three artists in Paper in Motion, now at the Morgan Conservatory, are storytellers as well as visual artists, weaving tales about what it's like to be human and female in this culture. Their deployment of inventive, unconventional materials and narrative configurations of objects is partly a result of feminist thought soaking deep into the warp of contemporary art-making.
But this isn't your mother's feminism any more than it's your grandfather's art. Gender is just part of the mix. L.A.-based Nancy Baker Cahill takes a .45 caliber pistol and paintings of flowers on plywood to a shooting range and opens fire. Sometimes she shoots them in the back, "not only to illustrate the blossom-like exit wound," she explains, "but to create tension — even discomfort — for the viewer (and for me) to now be on the other side of the bullet's trajectory." Some of the paintings are studded with such wounds, but in others, she paints blossoms around the holes, at once concealing and mending the damage, remembering that all living things suffer, heal and ultimately perish, and that every action contains a germ of violence.
Such thoughts open onto the abyss of time in which an individual life or all of history disappears. Human presence and motion through the ages are the ultimate subjects of Oberlin filmmaker Rian Brown-Orso's paintings, drawings, collages and other objects. Last summer she saw the prehistoric paintings found in the depths of caves in southern France. Part of her interest in them, in works like the large-scale drawing "Signatures" (showing a frieze of outlines of human hands interspersed with concentric circles), has to do with unchanging facts of vision and imagination. Art has always used the drama of light penetrating darkness and the flickering of images — whether deep underground by torchlight or in movie theaters — to recreate movement and captivate audiences.
At the show's entrance sits an antique sewing machine, primed with thread and ready to rip. It doubles as controller for a large, skeletal puppet made of dress forms wadded together. Pumping the cast-iron treadle triggers the up-and-down needle action of the 19th-century White machine. But in this case, red thread stretches from the bobbin around the corner to animate the paper golem. It's part of an elaborate trope that includes video components and beautifully composed, semi-abstract found-object constructions by Nina Sarnelle called "Selvation." Sarnelle's explorations run far and wide, from thoughts about the pervasive denial of female sexuality in the Bible to questions about the persistence of ancient symbols through widely separated historical epochs. At a time when installations are the currency of often half-baked graduate-school presentations, Sarnelle, Brown-Orzo and Cahill use the genre to produce thought-provoking and original works of art.