May 11, 2005 at 12:00 am

To welcome a Michigan spring and all the folly it induces, Revolution Gallery presents So Beautiful, a superficially decorative exhibition of botanical works that represent beauty but subversively deal with preconceived notions of reality.

Participating artists Thomas Rapai and Leopold Foulem play with traditional artistic values, such as the idea of what constitutes “good” art, by manipulating media and, as a result, the viewer — possibly even turning us into fools. Nevertheless, art that is exclusively pleasing to look at is too easy and safe. These artists push the envelope.

The line between conceptual art and craftsmanship has been toyed with too much to continue assuming a work belongs to one of these categories exclusively. Leopold Foulem’s sealed ceramic sculptures look like vases with exaggerated foot rings and elaborate floral patterns. They’re reminiscent of functional objects but they’re fine artworks, referencing the history of craft and contemporary commercial objects. His context is specific and encoded within the world of ceramics and his personal sense of humor. Foulem proves that symbols can refer to many things, yet simultaneously have no particular meaning, or perhaps even ironic or convoluted meanings.

Some art deals with visual language in a generalized or superficial way, but Albert G. Richards’ work considers alternative uses for and new approaches to language. Richards’ black-and-white radiographs are the result of his inventions of new technology, such as a recessed cone X-ray head that produces a photographic record, seeing into every layer. His controlled, detailed shots of translucent flowers expose every pore and vein of a plant. Though they’re gorgeous, their composition makes them feel dated, as they rightly could have been made even as far back as 1960, when he began teaching radiology at the University of Michigan.

With a new way of looking there is always a new value system created. Unfortunately dialect itself is often what comes to be valued (for example, highly illusionistic, buttery figurative paintings are perceived as strong, while flat and awkward still lifes are somehow acknowledged as weaker). It is vital to eliminate this hierarchy on a personal level to make room for greater understanding (and see how flat still lifes are sometimes intentional and daring).

To appreciate Thomas Rapai’s large-scale paintings of clichéd bird figurines, the viewer must approach the work as if it does not exist merely to prove itself as valid. Rapai’s paintings are interesting because they are mainly about processing paint in a new way. Perhaps the artist is intentionally clumsy with the medium, forcing himself to solve artistic issues without using standard structural solutions. Rapai seems to be incredibly aware of his medium, which suggests that he could (but would loathe to) paint traditionally seductive paintings, though he mocks them on the surface. He does this, while retaining reference to representation; however, this method can also become the new comfort level, and so it is my hope that Rapai has not already settled into this approach either.

While Rapai’s work may be formalistically intellectual, Sarah Wagner is the most conceptual of this group, employing symbolism more obviously. Her monochromatic, sewn organza sculptures pay homage to specific healing plants, such as gingko biloba. They are striking from first glance, as well as mentally engaging. The delicate fabric droops and seems wilted; however, the sculptural forms also are eternally “alive,” with strong leaves and petals untouched by other forces of nature, such as weather or insects. Wagner’s pieces hang as if they are climbing plants, crawling out of the corner of the gallery toward the viewer. These plants have our protection since they protect us, making us examine this intimate relationship of plant and human.

Needless to say, this exhibition is most interesting if you take the time to look closely and truly react to it.


Runs through May 28, at Revolution Gallery, 23257 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-541-3444.

Phaedra Robinson is a local artist. Send comments to [email protected]