Visual Arts

Ain't Mythbehavin'

Pantyhose with cotton crotches, old cut-up tablecloths, Hopalong Cassidy, Cesar Romero. Yup, Mesa Contemporary Arts certainly has selected a strange mixture of materials and subject matter for its "Two-Person National" exhibition, purportedly its very last before MCA bids adieu to its old location in Mesa Arts Center's venerable Leave It to Beaver schoolhouse digs on Center Street. And though an odd mixture, MCA's swan song show seems to work well overall, both thematically and visually.

The exhibition, which is unified by a recurring motif of the very human need to create and sustain personal myth in a rapidly changing, spiritually challenged society, features the work of artists Catharine Draper of Portland, Maine, and Heather Freeman of Lexington, Kentucky. Their work was chosen for the MCA exhibition from submissions in all media proffered by more than 200 artists from across the country. Final selections were made by no less than Elizabeth Smith, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, since 1999 and curator of that museum's current retrospective of sculptor Lee Bontecou, the 1960s' art world queen of cast-offs. Juror Smith is hardly new to strangeness, since prior to going to Chicago, she was a curator for 15 years at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where she organized shows of such notables as Cindy Sherman and Catherine Opie.

Not bad for Mesa, eh?

And speaking of cast-offs, Catharine Draper appears to be a connoisseur when it comes to recycling family-related discards into art. The 31-year-old artist is admittedly taken with the historical sanctity that seems to suffuse objects passed down by family and friends, most if not all invariably consigned to some dark closet, stashed away for posterity or "safekeeping." Draper, who started out as a painter, now scavenges for items like formal table linens, ratty baby blankets, hand-crocheted and tatted lace, even old prom dresses, which she recruits as art material. Essentially, Draper's once venerated "art supplies" have been passed on and over from generation to generation; they are familial hand-me-downs that have ceased to have much cachet in a world presently given to registering for wedding gifts at Crate & Barrel and Target. Removing these family treasures from their usual contexts, the artist revitalizes, as well as reinvents, new significance for them by recasting such forsaken objects into different forms while preserving their almost amuletic quality -- that invisible talismanic magic that kept them from the trash can for so long.

For example, Upholstered Taffeta incorporates a muted sapphire taffeta party dress once worn by Draper with baby blue, fish-patterned flannel that probably once did duty as a blanky some relative or friend gnawed on during babyhood. Pairing formality with funkiness, the artist has created an upholstered sculpture bearing more than a passing resemblance to a cartoon dinosaur. Or maybe a very uncomfortable recliner for a midget. Upholstered Fur combines fake brown fur with cheesy calico fabrics festooned with flamboyant flowers and pretty kitties, a coalition that pits faux formalism against outright kitsch.

"My family is totally Yankee, with that classic Eastern focus on proper and ladylike behavior," Draper admits in a recent interview. It's these traditional behavioral expectations and associations she subtly subverts with relish in her work, as in Reid State Park, a white, formal dining room tablecloth into which Draper has cut the shape of a stand of trees, and Pantyhose Panel, a minimalist wall piece composed of conjoined, stretched-out pantyhose, complete with cotton crotch panels yawning unerotically at the viewer.

While Catharine Draper deals with familial mythology, printmaker Heather Freeman bold-facedly creates her very own in large-scale digital prints on photographic paper and vinyl. Most of them sport Hollywood stars of yore duded out as cowboys, gunslingers, cavalrymen or other heroic Western types. (I'm still trying to figure out how Cesar Romero in a gambling dandy's suit made the cut.) According to an artist's statement hanging in the show, Freeman loved science as a child, but was bothered by its tendency to shove myth under the heading of social anthropology in order to emasculate its power. In response, she wanted to expand mythology's potency, among other objectives, by constructing her own.

Freeman places black-and-white photographic images of America's glamorized cowboy-and-Indian pop culture deities against colorful backgrounds of roiling galaxies, as if these celluloid heroes of yesteryear were the by-product of exploding novas rather than an enterprising movie studio's press department. This is Freeman's own pantheon of latter-day gods, worshiped beings of enviable strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits. And like Greek and Roman gods of the ancient past, often claimed to be the offspring of mortals and gods, Freeman's are pure figments of cultural imagination.

Through completely different media and ideas, Draper and Freeman share a common bond in MCA's final effort before it will be born anew in a bigger venue. Both obviously believe that myths are made to be broken.