Every artist aims to develop a trademark look. Most carve out an individual style within the usual tried and true playing field — a certain way with paint, a certain slant to their photos — but C.W. Roelle has accomplished the rare feat of staking out his territory off these beaten paths.
He creates astonishingly three- dimensional scenes by turning simple black wire into something resembling pen drawings floating in thin air. He lures you in with his subjects, usually curious Victorian-looking dreams — like his ornate six-foot-tall portrait of a pair of seated ladies in long flowing dresses with a couple dancing behind them that was exhibited in the "NetWorks 2008" show at the Newport Art Museum last winter. But his ultimate subject may be the nature of three-dimensional space itself.
"Not Just Women In White Dresses," Roelle's show at AS220's Project Space (93 Mathewson Street, Providence, through July 27), is his most accomplished and bewitching yet. Roelle deploys the forced perspective that creates the illusion of depth in theatrical sets in works like How to Enjoy the Paper, which shows a gentleman in an armchair reading a newspaper out on a lawn. Roelle suggests depth in the lawn by "drawing" the blades of grass larger as they would come toward you in space — and then bends the wire up and out toward you so that it actually does reach out into space.
Roelle's sculptures revel in the tension between the way the "drawing" creates the illusion of space while the wires create an actual shallow sculptural relief. The lines fascinatingly, bogglingly switch back and forth between a flat drawing and a three-dimensional sculpture, and seem to shift again each time you see the piece from a different angle. There's no doubt about Roelle's ability to "draw" this way or to invent alluring scenes. Whether his works are great or not tends to rest on their sense of space and the specificity of his rendering.
In How to Enjoy the Paper, the lines define the specific contours and shadows of the man, the chair, the grass. It looks a bit like paint-by-number diagrams. But at times, Roelle fills space with lots of noodling squiggles that in their regularity feel generic. And when the work becomes too flat, like the six tree vignettes in Winter to Spring 1977, or all three-dimensional, like the fully sculptured mini-bridges, the flat-versus-dimensional contrast evaporates and his work looses its spark.
Roelle's best piece here is The Flock Cage, which features an angel holding a bird cage out from the gallery wall as a flock of birds escapes out the bottom of the cage and flutters around it. It's a magical scene amplified by how it's crafted. The cage is sculpted in full three dimensions; the birds are flat and all occupy the same plane parallel to the wall. The angel is flat and perpendicular to the wall so that it only appears when you view the sculpture from its side. This play of space — the 3D cage versus the two contrasting flat perpendicular planes — makes his work crackle.
The Project Space's side gallery offers work by Jill Colinan and Kendra Plumley. Colinan stitches together deliciously creepy dolls with patchwork Frankenstein faces. Mr. Green is a character made from a green floral print fabric, with sleazy narrowed eyes, thinning disheveled hair, and — Colinan's signature — a cockeyed wicked smile full of viscerally realistic teeth made from beads. Bursting out of a kangaroo pouch on Green's belly is a bug-eyed baby monster with a broad exuberant grin. Exhibits over the past few years have shown that Colinan can turn these dolls out with the same quality in endless variation. It feels time to push these skills toward something more ambitious — perhaps more of the elaborate dollhouse dioramas she has made in the past, or to try out greater scale or massing so that the dolls' implied threat does not stay safely in doll-land but invades our world. Plumley's loose watercolor, pencil, and gold leaf drawings of wild wolves and girl vampires feel like the charming beginnings of an artist still finding her subject.