'Bill' of rights: Artists offer mad props to mentor

Making art can be risky business. Just ask Adam Wolpa, who gashed his finger while chopping cabbage at the opening of Ruffin Gallery’s exhibition, “Touched by Virginia.” No, the artist wasn’t doubling as a caterer; the slicing was part of Wolpa’s performance/installation of the “fermentation station” that forms his piece, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death,” which by the show’s end will yield two vats of sauerkraut.

Madcap? Definitely. But Wolpa isn’t the only participant in the 10-artist exhibit (comprising members and alumni of William “Bill” Bennett’s University of Virginia Sculpture Community) who takes an adventurous approach to art making.

Although the show’s title evokes both the tactile nature of sculpture and the lasting influence of UVA’s program (artist Jonathan Durham joked the exhibition could be called “Touched by Bill”), “touched” also suggests madness. And many of the show’s most successful works spring from crazy technical and conceptual leaps.

Rosemarie Fiore, for instance, uses fireworks to create stunning multi-colored abstract drawings. She ignites bottle rockets under cans, drags lit smoke bombs across the page, and scatters firecrackers to create elements in her collaged compositions. A video on Ruffin Hall’s ground floor documents Fiore’s pyrotechnic techniques, while the large “Firework Drawing #7” in the gallery shows her exuberant results.

Working more quietly (no doubt, literally), Firat Erdim explores construction, deconstruction, and transformation. “Noahmada,” Erdim’s monochromatic sculpture on Ruffin’s second floor, consists of a cluster of textured, organic-seeming columns rising out of a sand mound. It resembles something that a giant mud dauber in the desert might build, but a closer look reveals the columns are, in fact, crocheted tubes filled with sand— the fabric giving structure to the sand, and the sand giving structure to the fabric.

Another artist who uses textiles, albeit unusual ones, is Britta Bielak. On a small wooden hanger, her child-size “Lung Vest” appears to be a patchwork of baby bunny ears, although its material is actually magnolia pods sewn together with pink thread. Stirring a similarly tender response is Bielak’s “Heart Warmer— Winter Tights,” a pair of tiny misshapen leggings created from squares of felted dog fur.

Bielek’s garments may call to mind sweet Disney animals, but Eric Schmidt’s re-imagined tools seem straight out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Exquisitely crafted, his re-shaped and exaggerated hammers exude animated drama. 

All the artists in “Touched by Virginia” take risks, usually successfully, a tribute to Bill Bennett’s “touched” approach to sculpture.

“Touched by Virginia,” featuring work by Golnar Adili, Britta Bielak, Jonathan Durham, Firat Erdim, Rosemarie Fiore, Judith Leeman, Maya Mackrandilal, Eric Schmidt, Ashley Williams, and Adam Wolpa, is on view through October 21 at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Hall. 179 Culbreth Road. 924-6123.