Arts » Visual Art

Reflecting on the Past

A sculptor uses glass and other common materials to explore the mysteries of memory.

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Artist Elizabeth Murray once said that "art is an epiphany in a coffee cup." She was probably not suggesting that a good cup of joe is a work of art (one can imagine Juan Valdez disagreeing heartily), but rather that making art with commonplace objects is possible but no easy task.

In the current exhibit at the Sculpture Center, Camille Geraci, who graduated from Kent State University in 1998 with a master's degree in fine arts, uses common materials such as glass, plastic bags, vinyl, and shower drains to construct containers that are supposed to mimic the way the human brain stores memories. In this pursuit, the Rochester, New York artist has undoubtedly been influenced by modern psychological theories that compare memory to a storage vessel having the combined characteristics of libraries, tape recorders, and video cameras. In fact, the basic premise that runs through Works by Camille Geraci is that it is difficult to access the past. (If memory is like a library, searching for an old title can be an exasperating experience.)

There is nothing noteworthy about that idea (it's Freud 101), so the real question is: Has Geraci found a way to translate this problem into compelling visual language? For the most part, she has. Her intellectually focused sculptures both encourage reflection on the mysteries of memory and linger in the memory.

One of Geraci's works is a series of cylindrical aluminum rods, each of which stands three feet tall and is surmounted by a circular magnifying glass viewfinder. As viewers look down at the magnifying glass, they discover small transparent photographs that glow with the help of a light source embedded in each cylinder. Most of these photographs are of men and women slouching in chairs, hands resting pensively on chins. There is a grid pattern that overlies the photographs — a curious effect that suggests an attempt to impose order on material that defies precise description (the photos are hazy, and outlines are barely visible).

What, then, does this have to do with memory? Answer: One looks closely at these photographs (as one would examine one's memories), and yet effort is not necessarily rewarded with understanding. These images are significant (hence the light), but it's not clear why. The grid device is a way of shedding light on its title, "Instruments for Analysis." Analysis implies a concerted effort to see through the chaos of experience and to somehow make sense of it. Just as grids can organize blank pages (think of graph paper), Geraci uses grids to analyze hazy memories.

Although Geraci clearly has a knack for approaching complicated subject matter through the use of metaphors, she takes the expected approach: Light equals insight, haziness equals confusion, grids equal order. Memory is such an idiosyncratic topic — why not have light equal confusion and equate grids with disorder? "Instruments for Analysis" is conceptually focused, but because no expressive risks are taken, it is also earthbound.

Not that all of the work at the Sculpture Center is as predictable. A quirky, surrealistic sensibility runs through many of these pieces, a point most evident in "Retrospective Scopes." This is Geraci's most complex work, simultaneously witty and pensive. Surrealists such as Salvador Dali and René Magritte took recognizable objects and altered them in incongruous ways. So a cup and a saucer could be covered with fur, or a phone receiver could be yanked out of a telephone, only to be replaced with a lobster (Dali's so-called "Lobster Telephone").

Here, Geraci creates sculptures that look like pencil sharpeners, except that there is a magnifying lens where the pencils would ordinarily go. The viewer looks through the lens and turns the handle at the side. Inside this odd contraption there are transparent photographs, a tiny light source, and a multicolored kaleidoscopic effect that reminds you of those View-Masters you had as a kid.

There are several of these pencil-sharpener sculptures in the exhibit, and each one contains different images and different colors. There is a red-tinted photograph of a man who appears to be walking along a deserted landscape and an orange-tinted image of a table with place-settings but no food and no guests.

Geraci seems fascinated with the motif of the circle — the lens is a circle, the handle at the side moves in a circular fashion, the electric light on the interior of each sculpture is circular. With these objects that have characteristics of a toy, pencil sharpener, and even a periscope, Geraci might be restating, in visual terms, an aphorism by the famous French philosopher Pascal: "The paths of wisdom lead back to childhood."

Elsewhere, Geraci uses recordings of people laughing and talking to create a sense of memories captured on the fly. It's unsettling to hear these indistinct voices emerge from square objects that look like a cross between a Brownie camera and a surveillance device. Here, too, Geraci has found a way to cut and paste familiar objects until she arrives at a final object that is as disquieting as it is familiar.

Less effective is a piece called "Heavy Volumes," which consists of plastic bags attached to a metallic structure on wheels that looks as though it came from a hospital ward. Geraci has stenciled phrases about memory onto these IV-like bags and has drawn a connection between remembering and illness. The phrases are none-too-subtle snippets about the dangers of repressed anger, and they hint at relationships gone sour: "Swallowing Family Secrets" appears on one bag; another bears the phrase "Sensation of the apple that did not fall far." The point that corrosive memories and anxieties can make you physically ill is hardly original in this therapeutic age. This is one instance where Geraci is too explicit for comfort. The terrain is so familiar that slight hints would suffice.

Eva Hesse, the gifted artist whose interest in standardization and repetition has filtered down to young artists such as Geraci, got maximum mileage from her electrical wires and fiberglass. In her hands, these unprepossessing materials became the starting point for work that always seemed to be about the struggle between the perishable and the permanent. One has the sense from Hesse's interviews that she had a personal relationship with her materials (she spoke about the toxicity of fiberglass as though she were acknowledging a friend's quickness to anger). Geraci's stark sculptures made from commonplace materials like vinyl, plastic bags, and glass are not in Hesse's league (she's hardly alone in that), but the young artist has something to say, and sometimes in this exhibit she says it well. Her memory containers are conceptually akin to a library that lacks a card-catalog system. The memories are there somewhere, she seems to say, but attempting to get at them is mighty tough.

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