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September 24 - October 1, 1999

[Art Reviews]

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Simple works

Mark Brown's and Susan Boss's junk bonds

by Leon Nigrosh

At the Brush Art Gallery, 256 Market Street, Lowell, through November 7.

cutting edge Brush Art Gallery's white walls and polished hardwood floors are overflowing with cast-off hand tools and kitchen utensils, oddly reassembled and dabbed with brightly colored paint. These conglomerations, along with several brilliantly hued quilts, have the earmarks of "outsider art" that was put together by some self-taught visionary. But Easthampton artists Mark Brown and Susan Boss are well-schooled in the arts and have been painting, quilting, and creating public art for years.

While they owe much to outsider artists like Reverend Howard Finster (noted for his painted cutouts) and to the deceased Simon Rodia (who constructed Watts Towers), Boss's and Brown's 46 works are assembled and presented with more sophistication. For example, Brown's wall-mounted The Train of the Seven Deadly Sins is obviously an old handsaw, but it is painted to look like a locomotive and passenger cars in perspective. Each window reveals a silhouette representing Anger, Lust, Envy, and the rest -- all being driven by the devil at the throttle.

Again drawing inspiration from the outsider genre, Brown and Boss incorporate Bible quotations or other homilies into their work. Bold imagery and bright lettering combine to make the strong, simple statement in Hear No, See No, Speak No Evil, in which handsaws are riveted together and painted with Africanesque demons rendered in red, orange, and black. Their five-foot-tall quilt Man's Reach, constructed of silkscreen-printed and pieced cotton, presents a tall red ladder against a shaded blue sky with tiny white stars in the uppermost portion. The words on the rail read "Man's reach should exceed his grasp." Another quilted red ladder image becomes a figure holding a stylized heart, while the words spell out "Love will conquer all."

Three more wall-mounted, painted handsaws tell of the evils of alcohol. Literally and figuratively working with "old saws" in Whiskey, the artists depict a man seen drowning in a half-empty bottle near an ominous message, "First the man takes the drink then the drink takes the man." The same man is barely afloat in a bottle of flaming green alcohol in Absolut, and, in the third, the appropriate iconography tells us that "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop."

Rather than somberly admonishing us to follow the right path like many outsider works, these objects contain a strain of humor, which sometimes gains the upper hand. The image Brown vividly paints in Encourage No Vice shows us a man being squeezed in a . . .

This wry humor nearly runs rampant in Brown's new sculptures, which are constructed of junked kitchen utensils and other metallic detritus and shined up and accented with bits of color. Not only are they inspired and inventive, but they are fun for viewers to try to guess where the various parts came from and how they originally functioned. In the free-standing mixed-media figure A Star is Born, the torso is an old Farberware electric coffee pot holding an ice cream scoop aloft. Rosie the Riveter is an illuminated composite of coffee-pot parts, with little crescent wrenches for hands -- and poised for action. If only the piece were motorized.

For more quiet grins, you might discover that the muzzle of Robot Dog is a reincarnated Mouli hand-squeeze juicer; the wall mouse Micknocchio began as a funnel; and the silently shrieking Red Alert is made up of old toaster-oven pans, highlighted by the red/white star lid from a jar of Instant Maxwell House.

Whereas outsider art is often perceived by scholars to be manifestations of physical or psychological loss or isolation, Boss's and Brown's works are the result of many fruitful years of marriage and artistic collaboration. Through their impressively executed efforts, this duo bring a refreshing and whimsical take to our surroundings and put it forward for all of us to enjoy.

The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Call (978) 459-7819.


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