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May 28 - June 4, 1999

[Art Reviews]

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Rich stitch

Marilyn Pappas's complicated portraits of women

by Leon Nigrosh

MARILYN R. PAPPAS: STITCHED DRAWINGS AND COLLAGES At the Fletcher/Priest Gallery 5 Pratt Street, through June 10.

Iris Interwoven in Marilyn Pappas's stitched drawings and collages is sewn an important thread that serves as commentary regarding women's roles throughout history. Although her images of Greco-Roman goddesses appear broken, battered, and beheaded, their strength, glory, poetry, and beauty emanates from within. Yet there is more to these works than just the glorification of a bygone era; they contain a certain peace, serenity, and contemplative aspect. Not only is Pappas a competent seamstress, but her incomparable draftsmanship brings a cohesiveness to each one of the 15 pieces on display at the Fletcher/Priest Gallery.

The most striking image is Pappas's heroic 13-foot-tall Iris. Inspired by a photo of a dismembered Hellenic sculpture, this densely stitched image of Hera's handmaiden leaps off its linen background. Pappas's ability to create a surface of myriad stitches (laid as if they were individual pencil strokes in neutral hues) is particularly powerful as she creates sensuous folds of drapery with a fullness both real and an illusion. Her threads generate a dark chiaroscuro and, at the same time, develop a physical bas-relief nearly two inches deep. Pappas admits that her stitchery method is "the world's slowest way to make a drawing." Iris, in fact, took nearly nine months to complete.

As powerfully naturalistic as this drawing and her Grecian Muse are, Pappas thinks of her style as Abstract Expressionism, prevalent in the 1940s when she was in art school. "Because I can only stitch one small area at a time, I feel as though I'm working on little abstract drawings. Somehow they all come together and eventually look like the sculptures."

Through her representations of the body (nature) and drapery (culture), she is attempting to show how they can achieve a "graceful balance." Her 24x18" collage Draped Nike II maintains this symmetry, not only with the image's metaphorical aspect but with her judicious combination of photography and stitching. The photo is of the famous Nike of Samothrace, carved in marble in about 200 BC, posed with wings extended as the goddess of Victory is about to land on a ship's prow. Pappas extends Nike's flowing tunic with intricate folds of drapery delicately stitched in a cross-hatch of tan, beige, and cream threads -- all of which are affixed to her own handmade paper. Pappas contends that the voluminous body coverings that drape on the Greek goddesses were designed by the original artists to transcend their earthly functions and to take on magical power. Here she has evidently endowed Nike with even greater symbolic strength and authority.

Several of Pappas's most recent collages have an overlay of vellum, which casts a shade of mystery over them. In Veiled Aphrodite we see a photo reproduction of an ancient sculpture of the Greek goddess of Love and Beauty in an uncharacteristically modest pose. Pappas increases this feeling of modesty by covering the image with the translucent paper and then drawing additional penciled drapery to camouflage the figure. In near opposition to this sense of timidity, the drapery-gathers rendered in Veiled Venus give the impression that the Roman goddess is about to burst through the vellum layer, knee first.

Although still in keeping with the subject of Greco-Roman goddesses and all they stand for, Pappas digresses slightly in Botticelli's Graces, leaving Hellenist sculpture for 15th-century Italian painting. Collaged on an antiquarian map of northern Italy, a reproduction of a Sandro Botticelli's woman is obscured by a layer of vellum, over which a fabric swatch is sewn. Here Pappas concentrates on accentuating the pyramidal structure already composed by the Renaissance painter. In this work, as with her other collages, Pappas relies more on spontaneity than careful study of placement. The antiquarian maps serve primarily to give the sense of time and place, while the tiny puzzle pieces reflect upon the puzzle that is life itself.

The gallery is open Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 6 p.m. and by appointment. Call 791-5929.


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