Seeing red

Nene Humphrey's cosmic clusters converge at Kiang Gallery

Nene Humphrey's artmaking draws energy from a historical flood of women's work ranging from the body art of Carolee Schneemann to the quilts of Miriam Shapiro. A reverence for materials and an awareness of the complexities of feminism runs through her drawings and dimensional wall pieces on view at Kiang Gallery.

Feminist artists have explored the power in a woman's biology through visceral and poetic works since the 1970s. Humphrey's art has been considering issues of womanhood and domesticity since the early 1980s. There are parallels in her work and that of her younger contemporaries. In earlier sculptures and drawings, she used the spoon as an emblem of maternal nurturing, as did New York artist Janine Antoni in a recent bronze casting. Color photographs in Atlanta-based Jill Larson's Cycle show at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery 100 this summer quite literally examine the difficult beauty of her own menstrual blood. The gorgeous large-scale red images are as fascinating as they are off-putting to those who discover the source of their eclat. Infinitely less corporeal, yet still deeply in touch with the female and the moon cycle, are the recent blood red works by Humphrey.

The body that Humphrey exposes is more cosmic in nature, though her new works — made of paper, vellum, silk organza and felt — are closely tied to her past. The Wisconsin native learned to sew from the women in her family. Her father owned a ladies ready-to-wear store, and Humphrey's first New York studio, a former sewing factory, was in the garment district. So there's a natural logic to the needles, thread and fabric that come into play when she makes art.

The title Humphrey chose for the "Loculus" series refers to the cavities in a plant ovary. A myriad of wine red circles of silk organza, each pierced with a needle from which a long strand of burgundy thread dangles, are assembled in a cluster. The individual forms recall the template for a "Grandmother's Flower Garden" quilt. But instead of being stitched together to create the modular blooms of a coverlet, these red disks remain separate, like flowers in a bouquet or a group of corpuscles under a microscope.

Deep red threads move across "Loculus #9," creating a sense of tension and release. Horizontal threads are pulled taut and pinned directly to the wall at the edge of the installation, while countless other threads spill toward the floor in a loose cascade. Two similar arrangements on rectangles of gray wool felt are more painterly. Still beautiful, they lack the same weightless elegance.

"Simple Aggregates," a suite of four other felt works, point to star formations. Twisted knobs of red silk poke through the vertical gray surface, recalling constellations in deep space. Across the room, embroidery hoops suggest moon craters in "Rondo." Black and deep red spots and circles painted on translucent wine red organza are stretched in red embroidery hoops and suspended from the wall in a random array. These curious and beautifully executed installations transcend their domestic structures.

Perhaps the signature of this exhibition, Humphrey's lyric drawings in red and white, contemplate the relationship between the material and the immaterial. Red threads connect crimson dots and circles that trace paths across layers of vellum and white paper. The small shapes form clusters in brilliant, deep red ("Aggregates #1") and translucent rose ("Colony #10"). In their ritual creation, all of Humphrey's remote and lovely compositions make connections between the personal and the universal, measuring the depth of the metaphor that is woman.

Recent work by Nene Humphrey is on view through July 29 at Kiang Gallery, 1923 Peachtree Road. Tues.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sat. noon-5 p.m. 404-351-5477.??

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