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Wows and flutters

'Group Show' at the Chazan Gallery
By GREG COOK  |  January 22, 2014

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WORLD DOMINATION? Houle's 'Thistle.'
Vines and weedy plants overflow out of shadowbox frames, seemingly bent on expressing their fecundity in Jenn Houle’s dioramas in “Group Show,” at the Chazan Gallery at the Wheeler School (228 Angell St, Providence, through January 30).

In Thistle, Houle, who is presently studying at Cornell University at Ithaca, New York, convinces you that all those green leaves spreading around a spiky little yellow flower might be bent on taking over the world. And that’s the point of these plants craftily made from cut-out waxy vellum colored with ink.

Yellow star thistle — the title of one artwork here — was declared a “most wanted weed” by Yosemite National Park because of the invasive Eurasian flower’s ability to overrun landscapes. Kudzu: The Plant That Ate the South depicts fast-growing, climbing vines native to Asia and some Pacific islands that are said to have been introduced into the United States at the Japanese pavilion in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Houle’s art can be playful, part realistic, part cartoon, which she has used to charming effect in watercolors of bears and plants. But her work can also feel like overly earnest environmentalist diagrams, as in her installation at Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts last year of wolves assembled from collages of cut-out silhouettes of deer, moose, mice, and other critters they eat. Maybe it’s a question of tone.

What’s effective in this show is how the dioramas make us feel the vital environmental issue that the plants could get out of control. I wonder if the shadow boxes are necessary. They keep reminding us that this is “art” rather than immersing us in the illusion that these are plants. And what if the pieces were bigger? Imagine if they (seemingly) sprouted directly out of the walls and floors and cracks and took over rooms!

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PUBLIC IMAGE Antalek's 'Earthly Delights.'
“Group Show,” as its generic name implies, is a kind of random sampler of new work by six artists. In addition to Houle’s work, a pair of fluorescent-hued pop paintings by Hannah Antalek are also worth paying attention to. Last spring, she exhibited a group of splashy pink paintings about girlhood at AS220. She writes that Earthly Delights, on view here, was inspired by how people presented themselves on Facebook. Three faceless ladies are depicted, the one in the center holds a smartphone and wears a leather jacket painted quickly and with a blah splash of paint on the shoulder. Check out the fringe of plants at the bottom made with glitter.

A brand new painting, Katy’s Face Spa Inc., seems to show a room (though the space is somewhat indeterminate) with “I [Heart] NY” posters, framed photos of (I assume) friends, and a paper “Congratulations” party banner. A potted plant — with leaves again made from actual silver glitter (awesome!) — sits on a table.

Antalek says this one’s inspired by “the physical environment we engage with on a daily basis” that she sees in Brooklyn since moving there after she graduated from RISD last year. All of it reads like dispatches from 20something life today, right down to her glam palette. But it’s really the way that she paints that wows — her feel for bright colors and glitter, her hybrid of expressionist painting and more formal design.

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