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'Vacuum' Triggers Emotional Response at Museum of Wisconsin Art

Art Review

May. 31, 2011
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Melissa Cooke's eight drawings on display at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MWA) may send a shiver down the viewer's spine, but the exquisite graphite renderings also invite a closer look. Cooke juxtaposes technical elegance with terrifying images in the "Vacuum" series on display in MWA's One From Wisconsin gallery (through July 10).

Large-scale graphite drawings depict the artist's head covered with a plastic bag, her mouth open as she gasps for breath. Tortured expressions invoke horror and, for some viewers, revulsion in these provocative paintings. For Cooke, who graduated from UW-Madison's MFA program in May, the show marks her premiere solo exhibition in a museum.

These images build on Cooke's prodigious talent, seen in last year's group portrait exhibition at MWA. She applies loose graphite powder with a dry brush on white or ivory paper. Afterward, she uses erasers to fix the details and textures (without a pencil ever touching the image). The finished results are a soft, smooth shimmer in drawings with photographic realism.

This sensitive application belies the heavy subject material of these riveting portraits. The images Vacuum 1, 2 and 3, mounted together on a gallery wall, depict translucent plastic as a "vacuum" around the human head that would deny breath and life. This series reflects the everyday stream of images and information containing death, insanity and violence in the media. While one can be desensitized to Internet or newspaper images, these drawings demand attention and elicit a primal response.

Artists such as Edvard Munch explored human angst; others, like Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon, envisioned gruesome images with fantasy or surreal expressionism. Cooke's realism directly confronts viewers. Some might walk away in disgust or fear, while others might move closer and examine these portraits in detail, but there's no neutral territory within MWA's intimate gallery space. Regardless of the emotions it triggers, the exhibition proves Cooke to be a gifted artist worth watching.


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