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Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012

Villa Terrace’s Provocative ‘Curious Delights’

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The current exhibition at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum is titled “Garden of Curious Delights,” but be careful of what preliminary images that may conjure up. This exhibition is not about exotic plants or charming flower arrangements. The delights are not saccharine little morsels. There are, however, many shades of contemporary surrealism, provocation and mystery grown from the soil of macabre and metaphysical inspiration. The museum's sister organization, the Charles Allis Art Museum, held an exhibition earlier this year called “Our Gardens Inside and Out.” If that show suggested a breezy, whimsical summer day, this is like its nocturnal, disquieted counterpart.

Luminous oil paintings by Maria Tomasula open the exhibition. Tiny and immaculate, her jewel-like works combine elements of figurative painting and still life with things that look like veins and viscera of uncertain identification. There is a strong attraction through the sheer beauty of her paintings, and the deliciously unnerving quality of not being entirely sure what we are getting into.

This can also be said of installations by Cima Katz. Vanitas comprises dozens of small oval picture frames hung on a wall over a pair of black, crackled shelves. Pictures of girls, birds and people embracing, among other things, speak of life and regeneration, albeit permeated by memory and death. This is especially acute through locks of hair in frames, harkening back to Victorian mourning practices.

Other types of cultural reference are found in the work of Christopher Davis-Benavides. Ceramic sculptures with biomorphic forms suggest bodies, animals and ancient objects. One of the most interesting insertions of contemporary works into the museum's permanent collection is in the library, where two vases from his Caprichos Series look like New World artifacts in dialogue with the 17th-century aesthetics of the room.

Nature and organic forms are undercurrents in many works in the exhibition, and one of the most interesting, and perhaps esoteric, is found in Marna Brauner's Giardino Curioso. Made of various scraps of fabric, lace and other types of cloth, this work is a large textile spread on the floor of the Zuber gallery, a room noted for its hand-printed floral wallpaper. Brauner's piece on the floor may not seem like much initially, but when viewed from a position by the windows, a relationship with the outdoors seems to happen. The windows look over the slope of the Renaissance garden, past the burnished red of fall leaves and still lush green of the rolling lawn, to the twinkling blue of Lake Michigan. After you look outside at the patterns and patches of color, Brauner's piece seems to echo these references, as though the muted colors and textured surface of Giardino Curioso make up an uncanny landscape of its own.

“Garden of Curious Delights” continues at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum (2220 N. Terrace Ave.) through Jan. 13, 2013.

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