Nagging voices

Among the definitions of “intimate” in The Oxford American Dictionary is “having a sexual relationship with a person, especially outside marriage.”

The word, then, is a collection of syllables fraught with tension and innuendo — as is the Asheville Art Museum’s current exhibit, Self and Soul: The Architecture of Intimacy. Ann Batchelder curated the show — the museum’s most exciting since the brilliant fiber exhibit she put together several years ago.

Self and Soul examines art-world stars: The youngest exhibiting participant, photographer David Hilliard, was born in 1964; the oldest, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, in 1911.

Painter and Black Mountain College alumna Dorthea Rockburne once declared that the only two ways for a woman to get attention in the art world were to be young and f••kable or to live to be very, very old. In this case, however, Batchelder’s interesting, intelligent selections are marked by an unusual gender balance — the work of seven men and six women is displayed.

In her catalog essay for Self and Soul, the curator states, “The universal desire for intimacy is the axis around which the works in this exhibition revolve.”

Glass artist Mark Peiser lives in Western North Carolina. The other exhibitors hail from all over the United States and work in media ranging from traditional to super high-tech to combinations of the two. These pieces invite viewers to probe bonds of all kinds: relationships with family, friends and lovers, neighbors and others.

Through the mid-’80s, Mary Frank was well known for her raw, expressive clay sculpture. Her heavily layered, mesmerizing paintings retain the freshness and energy of that earlier work. The paint is thick and flowing, and the palette skillfully alternates between warm and cool hues. The face of the woman in “Voice III” is supremely confident — this is direct, no-nonsense, artist-to-viewer communication.

The idea of touching something in an art museum is enough to make Frank’s audience uneasy, but to reach toward the extraordinarily primal mountains in “Ever” takes real courage! The piece is a box, hinged on either side and outfitted with two ordinary wooden knobs. The interior reveals a human figure running through an active field bisected by sweeping, vibrating shapes. “Ever” is about the beauty of the paint, but it also takes the patient viewer on an arresting spiritual journey.

The altarlike construction of Frank’s piece evokes the religious works of the past, but Ken Aptekar directly appropriates Renaissance religious imagery. His big painting of an angel holding a trailing scroll is covered in thick glass with sandblasted text proclaiming a truncated version of the classic answering-machine decree: “No One is Available To … “

Interaction comes when the viewer recognizes his or her own face reflected in the glass.

An eloquent reference to the false romanticizing of a culture, Carrie Mae Weems’ untitled piece from The Hampton Project draws heart-wrenching poignancy from implied cultural disconnect. The 7-foot-high ink-jet print on canvas is a reproduction of an old photograph, done in tones of blue. A young Native American woman sits dejectedly on a patterned floor, wrapped in a plaid blanket. The superimposed text reads: “Before your image and Mission furniture became highly collectable and museums crammed their vaults with your blankets, beads and bones.”

In the upper-right-hand corner is the date of the original photograph — 7/33. Weems has a long history of tackling stereotypes and assumptions about cultural and ethnic differences. The photographs of her family and friends around her kitchen table are extremely personal, providing a picture of African-American life not commonly found on TV crime shows.

Louise Bourgeois — who worked in seclusion for many years until feminist critic Lucy Lippard championed her in the ’70s — is an icon for women artists. Charged with personal meaning and universal resonance, her work is an undeniable must for an exhibit about intimacy. “Maisons Fragiles” refers to the vulnerability of children in their own homes, with their own parents: how the dynamics of the parental relationship impact the kids.

“Fallen Woman” is only a foot long, yet it wields the emotional impact of a monumental sculpture. The porcelain piece features the head of a woman glazed in gold. But her “body” is shaped like a handle — diminished by loss and convenient for manipulation.

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