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Contemporary art exhibition teases out connections between idea and material form

Conceptual Relationships

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clear-installation C96.JPG

Leah Mulligan Cabinum's titular installation from her current exhibition "Clear." Provided

The essence of conceptual art usually resides in the idea alone. In “Red Square, White Letters,” for example, Sol LeWitt substituted the names of colors for the colors themselves so that the viewer would not respond to the physical interplay of red and white but think primarily of the idea of red and the idea of white and their symbolic associations. To LeWitt, the actual 1962 oil on canvas used to relay his conception is of less worth than the ideas expressed.

Sometimes, however, the material record takes on a life of its own and possesses a value independent of the concept conveyed. Such works that begin with a dialogue between the idea and the material eventually result in separate monologues.

Take, for example, the current show at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art. The major piece in Leah Mulligan Cabinum’s “Clear,” which shares its title with that of the exhibition as a whole, is a light-filled passageway running the length of the gallery space, essentially parallel to the six tall windows on the far wall. On both sides of this temporary corridor, Cabinum has hung slender acrylic tubes, suspended almost ceiling to floor, with large Mylar panels at each end. Through almost every tube, a fiber thread has been pulled, one end of which puddles on the floor — the threads are all variants of the color red, which in Buddhism represents wisdom and virtue.

In concept, this large-scale sculptural installation makes reference to the fact that nothing in life, not even the life journey, is as clear-cut as we may believe. The creased Mylar panels at each end of the passageway reflect the image of the gallery visitor as they proceed forward, but that image is never clearly defined. The reflected figure is distorted and surrounded by flickering shadows. Furthermore, as the visitor moves between the shimmering tubes, forward momentum may be halted, just as life’s distractions may impede progress toward our anticipated goals.

As a material object, “Clear” has an appeal independent of its motivating idea. It provides the gallery visitor with a unique experience, abounding in sensory pleasures. Our eyes may be dazzled by the light reflected in and refracted by the tubes. We may also be enthralled by the shadows cast on the floor and onto the glimmering Mylar panels.

In addition to this large-scale piece, there are 15 more discrete art objects, most small-scale and wall-mounted, in the current show. Each makes a separate statement, but taken collectively, they play off one another. Cabinum herself contends that all the pieces relate somehow to the concept of relationships and particularly to personal associations from her own past and present.

Some of these works can be paired, offering two sides of the same concept.

Take, for example, the mixed media piece entitled “Nurture.” Composed of a pink-colored, stuffed fabric center surrounded by a fragment from a lambskin muff and a curved acrylic tube filled with red fabric, the piece reads like a fetus cushioned from the outside world and sustained by localized nutrients. The work to the immediate right entitled “Thwart” makes reference to much the same central entity, now pale and cankered, no longer cocooned and nourished. A shred of fur jacket dangles from one end, a disengaged and empty tube on the other side. It’s plain to see that not all relationships are healthy and fruitful.

According the published artist statement, Cabinum’s choice of “relationships” as her central concept was also partially inspired by the “intelligent, empathetic, and social nature of elephants.”

This connection is most dramatically embodied in the second-largest piece in the current show, a ceiling-to-floor, wall-mounted work entitled “Revel.” Composed of a series of slender, stuffed-fabric tubes in pink, red and purple, set against a reflective Mylar panel and descending from the top of the wall to the bottom where they fan out across the surface of the floor, the work might make one think of the long tails of an elephant or perhaps their trunks, both masterfully manipulable elements of the animal’s physical form.

The fact that the fabric tubes spread out on the floor makes one think of an elephant’s extraordinary relationship to the ground. Scientists have discovered that these largest of land animals can communicate through vibrations registered by their feet and trunks. Hence, the title “Revel” may refer not so much to noisy celebration but to the “good vibrations” that make for a good relationship.

Almost all of the pieces in the current show are the result of the artist’s two-month residency at the center, whose mission is “to promote understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of contemporary art.” The current exhibition by Leah Mulligan Cabinum provides visitors with an opportunity to sample the latest work of a noted artist working in the category of conceptual art and thus to make their own connections between idea and material form.

Lea Mulligan Cabinum: “Clear”

Through April 25.

Post and Courier Columbia/Free Times arts coverage is supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation Fund at Central Carolina Community Foundation.

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