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October 24, 2008
Art Pick of the Week

At midtown gallery: Let's get ethereal
By Victoria Dalkey, The Sacramento Bee Art Correspondent

"Lucia Arriving", oil with silkscreen on linen, 16" x 16", 2008, Mary Hull Webster
Looking at Mary Hull Webster's show at b. sakata garo is a little like watching a Noh drama.

You're unfamiliar with the language, the plot and the setting, but you admire it and are moved by it nonetheless.

The exhibition consists of works from two series that Webster has focused on for many years: "The Marriage of Lucia and Hugo" and "Time's Cargo," and spinoffs from them. The Lucia and Hugo works present an unlikely pair – a male figure (Hugo) dressed in a makeshift costume as a Magus or seer, and a nude female figure (Lucia) with the classical lines of a Kore or love goddess.

Through a series of permutations, they go from a relatively unembellished state with their attributes – a dress and a badge – sewn onto their bodies to a richly textured and colorful image in which each is dressed in a clown outfit.

The works are both elegant and suggestive. The Magus maintains an enigmatic presence while the female figure alternately suggests a Cycladic sculpture, a Venus with a girdle of roseate dots around her pelvis, and an androgynous being, neither male nor female.

In one image, the Magus is turned upside down as the female figure glows like a slender shaft of light.

In other works, Lucia appears as a blurry female head wearing crude blue sunglasses or with a halo of mandalas surrounding her face. In one large image, she emerges from the gloom of a twilight sleep state as luminous and ethereal as Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

She also takes center stage as the protagonist of an artist's book titled "Looking for Lucia: Windows."

"Time's Cargo" moves from a large work on paper that has been stitched and drawn on with mandalalike forms to a series of three-dimensional boxes lighted from the inside and titled "Time's Mycelium."

The references here are even more arcane than the ones in the Lucia and Hugo works, but the objects are intriguing. One box with pearllike forms in a circle called up for me associations with the glass bead game in Herman Hesse's "Magister Ludi." Others seemed to refer to medieval charts or tables of the elements, or to stained-glass windows.

Needless to say, they are hard to grasp on a logical or verbal level, but they carry an emotional punch through visual metaphors and analogies. Steeped in early 20th century dada, Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychology, Webster's work is hermetic but not exclusionary. You can enter it on many levels without having a password, admiring the beauty and stateliness of its stylized imagery and the suggestiveness of its allusions to classical myths and esoteric studies.

It helps, though, to know that the characters in "The Marriage of Lucia and Hugo" series are Hugo Ball, the founder of the Swiss dada movement; and Lucia, a model who symbolizes light and serves, perhaps, as an alter ego for Webster. The images seem to explore a marriage of opposites, a Manichean working out of the forces of good and evil, light and darkness, in a symbolic union of divergent forces.

It's interesting to note that the dada movement in art began during World War I, arising from the disillusionment of idealists confronted with the facts of combat, the hellishness of war.

From that disillusion came a disenchantment with the social norms of the culture that led to the war and an antagonistic stance toward culture in general and art in particular.

It was, in effect, an anti-art movement that ironically displaced traditional art and took its place in avant-garde museums and galleries.

The result has been that for many in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, art has become synonymous with philosophy, an extension into the realm of what Tom Wolfe so accurately called "The Painted Word." And yet art prevails and in Webster's hands becomes once again something resembling beauty.

Now, as in Ball's time (circa 1916), we are caught up in a war that has led to such atrocities as Abu Ghraib (one of Webster's images refers to the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib), calling our cultural norms into question. While Webster's response is abstruse, it offers the possibility of transformation and Jungian unity.

Mary Hull Webster

WHERE: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.

WHEN: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through November 1

INFORMATION: (916) 447-4276