Journey Through a Body 

Eye-popping exhibit at ruby green merges medical concerns with broader conceptual ideas, mixes painterly approach with installation

Eye-popping exhibit at ruby green merges medical concerns with broader conceptual ideas, mixes painterly approach with installation

Infectious

Through Feb. 22

ruby green contemporary art center

514 Fifth Ave. S.

Hours: noon-4 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

For information, call 244-7179 or visit www.rubygreen.org

In the 1966 sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage, Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd play scientists shrunk to molecule size and injected into the human body. They weave their way through cells and corpuscles and do battle with the body’s immune system in an effort to perform life-saving brain surgery. Stepping into Kristina Arnold’s “Infectious” installation, currently on view at ruby green contemporary art center, is like being cast in a remake of the film—minus the part where you have to ward off the immune system’s arsenal of deadly defenses.

The installation begins in the small reception area at the front of the gallery. Here the artist has affixed dozens of spiky hot-pink forms to the walls and positioned a pod-like form in slick pink plastic on the floor beneath glowing orange letters that spell out the title of the show. Reminiscent of microscopically enlarged bacteria—or the cuddly but lethally regenerative tribbles of Star Trek fame—the wall forms are composed of faux fur fabric, stiffening compound and glitter. The eye-catching but vaguely disturbing visuals in the reception area are a perfect prelude to the installation in the gallery’s main space, a tent-like room whose sides bulge with colorful plastic bubbles. Viewers can peer through the bubbles for convex and concave views of the world within—and then slip off their shoes and actually step inside the art.

Once inside the tent, a carpet of hot-pink faux fur caresses the feet, and dozens of molded plastic forms surround the viewer. Suspended on a web of crocheted yarns and heavy thread, the forms suggest pulsating human organs connected by nerves, muscles and blood vessels. Coatings of latex and wax give them an even more organic feel. The heavy black thread that holds these bubble “windows” in place references surgical stitches used to close an incision. Additionally, a sound loop of muffled voices layered over “Pulse Music III,” composed by John McGuire, suggests the repetitive beeping of hospital monitors, or perhaps the inner babble in one’s head. The color scheme of hot pink, vivid yellow and neon green, on the other hand, calls attention to the intricate abstract design and leaves the art open to other, less medical interpretations.

The room full of colorful shapes might suggest, for example, a child’s world of playhouses, soap bubbles, party balloons and brightly colored candies. “I use installation to transport the viewer to a different reality by physically surrounding them with a transformed, though familiar, space,” Arnold says. “I think 'Infectious’ tugs at vague childhood references without being pinned to any specific memory or place.” Arnold also injects a sense of uneasiness into an environment that seems initially appealing by using deliberately hyper-pastel colors and a claustrophobic composition. “The space is familiar but wrong—it becomes sickeningly sweet and sensory-overloading,” she says.

Hot pink, the predominant color, strikes the eye at first as playful. After several moments, however, it becomes overpowering. Plastic, the key material, mimics the smooth elasticity of human organs, but the more one studies the forms, the harder and more artificial they look. “Viewers are alternatively delighted and uneasy,” Arnold agrees, pointing out that she’s exploring “the oscillation between comfort and discomfort, ease and unease.” The artist is also interested in the way society deals with disease, especially mental illnesses. “The societal creation of sickness and our cowboy-medicine solutions often deal with symptoms only, ignoring root causes and setting up a permanent tension between unsolved illness and cosmetic solution.”

Whatever the viewer’s emotional response or intellectual interpretation, the visual experience of Arnold’s installation is kaleidoscopic. Overhead lights, refracting through the plastic forms, cast colored shadows on the walls—shadows that move and change shape as the viewer jostles through the confined space, often making contact with the plastic blobs and bubbles. “I consider my work walk-in paintings,” Arnold says. “I want the viewer to interact more physically with my work, to become the figure within the painted environment.”

Previously as an artist, Arnold created Matisse-like paintings. She turned to installation art when her works literally “escaped from their canvases, morphing from two-dimensional into three-dimensional installation space,” she says. “I like working within the discipline of installation but want to merge it with the aesthetic sensibility of painting. So while I’m exploring the creation of environments, I’m still investigating the painterly elements of form, line, color and composition.”

For Arnold, who graduated with a degree in community health from Brown University, installation art is a natural extension of her interest in the workings of the human body and mind. “Questions about health and human biology have always intrigued me,” she says. “[But] after working at Vanderbilt Medical Center [in pharmacoepidemiology, the study of how pharmaceuticals influence illness and disease] for five years, I realized that I was using the wrong language to explore those questions.”

Arnold went back to school and is currently completing her master’s in fine art at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. The “Infectious” installation is her thesis project. “I think that medicine and art are really related on a fundamental level and that they merge together somewhere with intuition and faith,” she says. “Both have to do with investigating what makes us human on a very basic level—what makes us tick bodily and what makes us tick conceptually or spiritually.”

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