Culture- ART FEATURE- Inner dimensions: UVA artists delve deep

Years ago at an oh-so-polite UVA faculty party, professor Farzaneh Milani and I got into a lively discussion about why female genitalia weren't more lavishly celebrated in art. A male faculty member wandered over, but as soon as he got a whiff of our conversation, he turned bright red and walked away. 

I smiled at the memory while viewing UVA artist-in-residence Ebony Patterson's huge mixed-media prints that explore the vulva as if it were a cavern of jewels. Patterson's work is currently on display in the Off Grounds Gallery exhibition, "Intimate Matter," which also features paintings by fellow artist-in-residence Corey Drieth.

Drieth and Patterson make an odd match for a two-person show. For her semi-abstract and exuberant expositions of women's physicality, Patterson often works large, complexly layering textures, line, and pigment on paper. Drieth's pieces, on the other hand, are small and minimal. His flat geometric abstracts create tranquil spaces that flow with the grain of the underlying wood panels.

Nevertheless, both artists are interested in mining what is usually kept personal and private. Patterson opens up the gushing, luscious environment that flourishes between women's legs. Using a palette of black, sepia-toned gray, and a range of reds– from scarlet to coral to carmine– her large prints are like geological fissures enriched with round-edged rubies and garnets.

Patterson also displays a fascinating 15-part untitled book-art piece consisting of edited and embellished pages excerpted from an old gynecological text. Calling attention to words that emphasize the fear and violence associated with women's bodies ("choked," "inflammation," "distorting," etc.), she re-draws illustrations and overlays diagrams with white, lacy, three-dimensional cut-outs that transform the maligned genitalia into a wondrous natural landscape. 

While Patterson looks inside the body, Drieth peers into the spirit. Influenced by the contemplative traditions of Quaker Christianity and Zen Buddhism, as well as by modernist abstraction (think Rothko gone small and neat), Drieth uses crisp-edged blocks of saturated color to create areas of expectant stillness that require viewers to slow down and reflect.

In "Heart," he centers a vertical rectangle at the bottom of a square of pure magenta. The lower quarter of the rectangle is a horizontal block of black, while the remaining 3/4 offers a translucent wash of black and magenta that reveals the underlying wood grain. The composition is simple yet deeply compelling.

Whether looking between the legs or the lines, both Patterson and Drieth encourage viewers to lean closer for a more intimate examination.

Corey Drieth and Ebony Patterson's exhibition, "Intimate Matter," is on view at UVA's Off Grounds Gallery through October 28. 200 W. Main St. 924-4298.