Art that gets under your skin

Hair balls and elegance may seem incompatible, but Loran Scruggs’ “Hair Ball Gown” lends an unexpected grace to the nickel-sized spheres decorating a gossamer, flesh-colored shift. And it’s just one example of how this exhibition, the Penland Gallery’s challenging Either Side of the Skin: Work Inspired by or Responding to the HumanBody, is filled with surprises.

Loran Scruggs’ striking “Hair Ball Gown”

While artists in this show make use of everything from medical implements to their own hair, the works share a common theme of sensuality. Of that tactile middle ground, curator Kathryn Gremley explains, “I have a cup in my cupboard at home that fits the shape of my hand perfectly and also clearly bears the marks of the artist’s hand.” In text accompanying the exhibit she continues, “I covet the cup because of those two things, but most important is the way the rim feels to my lip.” Gremley’s selections for the exhibition involve all of the senses, but focus strongly on touch.

Evidence of touch is everywhere. “Three Vases” by South Korean potter Oh Hyang Jong is based on the 5,000-year-old tradition of the multi-tasking Onggi jar. In the exhibition notes, he remarks poetically, “If I make my work quickly, and touch the clay directly, it is like catching a wild tiger.”

Less traditional are “Hellbound,” “Just for Now,” “I Know my Place,” and “Baby Mama,” a series of skin-transferable lithographs by Jessica Meyer. Her impermanent “tattoos” attempt to humorously address issues of body size, glamor and the aging process that many women grapple with.

Jewelry design approaches surface femininity from another angle, though neither Yuyen Chang or Mary Ann Scherr design jewelry for the squeamish. Chang’s exquisite brooch, ring and pendants delve into beauty philosophy (that highly subjective, age-old issue that the highly subjective medium of art so often plumbs) and deviations from perceived norms by utilizing the forms of human orifices and different types of hair.

An example of Ben Simmons captivating sumi-e-on-skin work.

Scherr’s inspiration came in 1969, when, as she explains in her artist’s notes, “A scarf fell from the neck of the woman coming toward me. The scarf was covering a metal device that was stuck into her throat!” Upon learning that the woman’s medical condition was causing her to be self-conscious to the point that she was withdrawing from the world, Scherr designed a necklace around the sterling silver device, which allowed her to face life without the camouflaging scarf.

Also inspired by contrasts, Ben Simmons’ photography captures the play of opaque sumi-e ink on the bare skin of women in Japan. In some of the photos, the women have carefully brushed the ink on each other; in other images, they splash themselves with abandon. Although each woman’s approach was different, Simmons points out in his accompanying text, “Their uninhibited self-expression was always joyous, and the results were inevitably beautiful.”

Drawing inward—perhaps the under the skin part of the exhibit—Penland’s patriarch Paulus Berensohn offers “Souls Kitchen.” The quietly moving works of a casement cloth and a journal relate to Tibetan and Indian ideas that humans are composed of several interpenetrating sheaths.

Though Either Side of the Skin may not offer any answers to the taboos, struggles and issues humankind has long battled when it comes to all things physique-oriented, this particular body of work does present many new angles with which to look at that most human of canvases: our very flesh.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville based painter and writer.]

who: Either Side of the Skin: Work inspired by or Responding to the Human Body
what: A multi-artist exhibit exploring all things body-related
where: Penland Gallery at the Penland School of Crafts
when: Through Sunday, July 20 (open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday noon-5 p.m. Free. www.penland.org/gallery or 828-765-6211)

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