Art: An elaborate memorial to Lolabelle

Laurie Anderson's homage to her dog at Fabric Workshop is impressive, and creepy.

20111002_inq_soza02z-h
"The Sweetness of Music," above, made by Laurie Anderson of mud, clay, and the ashes of her terrier Lolabelle; the violin is Anderson's signature instrument. Left, "Lola- belle in the Bardo," one of a series of 10 huge charcoal-on- paper drawings. The exhibit, "Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo," also includes a half-dozen tiny videos projected onto clay figures of people in a dark room.

Lolabelle must have been one special dog. When she died on April 17, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, her mistress, was inspired to create an unusually elaborate, and emotionally intense, memorial to her longtime terrier companion.

It's on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Anderson's exhibition, "Forty-Nine Days in the Bardo." People who bond intimately with dogs will understand it intuitively, and probably will find it moving. Those unable to accept pets as human surrogates might consider it to be a bit over the top.

Either way, "Bardo" is an impressive piece of creation, in large part because it's not just about losing a dog. In its broadest sense, it's a meditation on the timeless themes of love and loss, of how people accommodate themselves to the inevitability of death.

Religion is supposed to help with this, so it's not surprising, as the exhibition title indicates, that Anderson has framed her memorial to Lolabelle in religious terms, specifically Buddhist but allusively Christian as well.

The framing begins with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which, Anderson says, describes the Bardo as the 49-day period between death and rebirth. Lolabelle died on Palm Sunday and was reborn on June 5, the artist's birthday.

What these fateful coincidences might signify, where Lolabelle's reincarnated spirit is now, even why Tibetan Buddhism is a factor, is left blank. Anyway, it's a touching story.

The most imposing part of Anderson's homage is a suite of 10 huge charcoal drawings on paper, each more than 10 feet high by 14 wide, that resemble cartoons for tapestries. Initially, they reminded me more of stations of the cross - devotional episodes that synopsize a life.

The panels aren't narrative, though; they're composites of images and energetic movements that are more like fragments of dreams or memories, boldly expressed. I presume they represent Anderson's emotional conflict, her struggle to reconcile her cherished memories of Lolabelle with the finality of the dog's demise.

Two other smaller works complete the picture. One is a striking portrait of a dog as a heavenly constellation. Anderson achieved the effect by pricking the image into a large sheet of aluminum, then backlighting it.

The other is what amounts to a reliquary, although of an odd kind. After Anderson had Lolabelle cremated, she mixed the dog's ashes with mud, clay, and water, then shaped the material into a violin, her signature instrument as a performer.

She recalled that as she mixed the material, "Water released her [Lolabelle's] smell. It's as if she had reappeared, run out of the ocean or jumped out of the bathtub. I was completely overwhelmed."

Well, so was I; The Sweetness of Music, as the sculpture is titled, felt more than a little creepy. Maybe that's because all my dogs were buried in the backyard, not transformed into icons.

One other aspect of the Anderson show is somewhat harder to grasp because of scale and viewing circumstances. Iron Mountain consists of a half-dozen tiny video projections distributed around the floor of a large gallery.

The videos are projected onto clay figures of people, in a room as densely stygian as a deep coal mine; one must be led from one to another by an attendant with a flashlight. This is disorienting, even anxiety-inducing.

Add to that the diminutive scale and acute viewing angles, and the difficulty in understanding the audio tracks, and you end with an experience one must accept on faith, if at all.

Iron Mountain is a storytelling piece; as Anderson observes in notes, "Making a small surrogate person is a good way to tell a story without being there." That might be true, although in this case the stories are submerged in the staging.

Perhaps Anderson's performance/lecture at the workshop on Oct. 13 will clarify things. The evening begins with a reception at 6 p.m., followed at 7 by the artist's explanation of how animal stories have played a major role in her art throughout her career.

Local artists at Art Museum. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been criticized for not paying sufficient attention to local talent.

Well, not this season. Besides a current group exhibition called "Here & Now," the museum will open the installation of a large sculpture by Tristin Lowe on Oct. 22 and a midcareer retrospective for photographer Zöe Strauss on Jan. 14.

"Here & Now" is a selection of works on paper by 11 Philadelphia artists and photographers, some of whom may be more familiar to you than others. They are Astrid Bowlby, Steven and Billy Blaise Dufala (who work as a team), Vincent Feldman, Daniel Heyman, Isaac Tin Wei Lin, Virgil Marti, Joshua Mosley, Serena Perrone, Hannah Price, and Mia Rosenthal.

Ranging in age from 25 to 50, they were selected by Innis Shoemaker, senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. She said she wanted to demonstrate "the remarkable diversity that exists right now among Philadelphia artists working on paper."

She also included works by some emerging artists alongside more established ones "because I felt that they stand up so remarkably well next to each other."

If there is a theme, then, it's diversity, and Shoemaker is right on the second point; one really can't tell the emerging from the emerged without a program.

"Here & Now" offers an appealing mix of ideas and methods, and a pleasing balance between topicality and pure aesthetics. Traditional representation is more likely to come from the photographers than from the printmakers, however.

I found that even the artists I knew, such as Bowlby, Marti, and Mosley, seemed fresh and stimulating. The Dufala brothers, who seem to pop up everywhere these days, affirm themselves as pungent social commentators.

I especially enjoyed Feldman's large-scale photos of contemporary Japanese architecture for what they communicate about that country's talent for sophisticated design.

Mosley's photographs of a famous conference site in Switzerland, empty interiors and landscapes seen through windows, evoke a dreamlike sense of melancholy.

Price, the youngest artist in the group, offers incisive social documents in the form of street portraits made in Philadelphia. By contrast, Bowlby's obsessively miniaturized mark-making represents a purer, Zen-like visual meditation.

After I made the rounds of "Here & Now," its lack of a unifying philosophy no longer bothered me. The artists' voices are clear, strong, and individual, and that turned out to be more than enough.


Art: Canine Requiem

The Laurie Anderson exhibition continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St., through Nov. 19. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 5 Saturdays and Sundays. Admission $3. 215-561-8888 or www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.

"Here & Now" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Dec. 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with ID and visitors 13 through 18. 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.