Culture- ART FEATURE- Praiseworthy: PVCC offers artful altars

Last week Piedmont Virginia Community College's John Hancock stopped me on the stairs in the McGuffey Art Center to gush about how I was really going to enjoy PVCC's just-opened group show, "Little Altars Everywhere." Then he paused to offer a second opinion: perhaps the exhibition was too lighthearted. Observing that none of the lively multi-media pieces focus on the gravity of ritual sacrifice, he said he would have liked to see more dark-night-of-the-soul stuff, more troughs where rivulets of blood might run.

Not me. What's wonderful about this unabashedly fun show in the V. Earl Dickinson Building's South Gallery is the joyous spirit coursing through the widely varying pieces. Even those dealing with death– Shelby Fischer's "Spiritual Castaway" and Rose Hill's "A Tribute to Patricia, 1949-2006"– burst with a celebration of life. 

Curator Beryl Solla conceived the show after a visit to Hill's studio, which struck her as resembling a shrine. She invited Hill and eight other participants to create personally meaningful altars, leaving the size, subject matter, and media up to each individual. The resulting works run the gamut from Robin Campo's small ceramic wall piece, "Safe," to Fischer's large freestanding, art-filled armoire.

A fascinating aspect of the show is how each contributor has adapted her or his aesthetic to meet the challenge. For instance, Michael Fitts, known for his object-focused paintings on scrap metal, arranges discarded odds and ends in a weathered, apse-like metal recess to create the minimal and enigmatic "Empire," which seems to honor the inevitable decay of even the best-laid plans. 

Likewise, Rob Tarbell uses organza and vellum, last seen in his PVCC show "Birding," to create a theatrical setting for the central photograph in his sentimental "Surrature di Amore" ("Locks of Love"). The image illuminates when the viewer touches an actual lock veiled beneath the mesh of Tarbell's shrine to falling in love.

Audience participation is also central to many of the other altars displayed. Next to Fischer's multi-faceted cabinet, inspired by Mexican and Peruvian reliquaries, a bowl of wishbones invites viewers to break them in hopes of attaining their heart's desire. Nearby, a motion detector lights up architect Greg Jackson's mirror-filled "Reflections" whenever someone walks in its vicinity. And Marla Cantor's kitschy and nostalgic "Family Tree" encourages viewers to browse through a photo album of personal snapshots.

"Little Altars Everywhere" may lack sanctimonious gravitas, but it overflows with visual blessings that will leave visitors smiling.

The exhibition "Little Altars Everywhere," featuring work by Harriet Arthur, Robin Campo, Marla Cantor, Michael Fitts, Shelby Fischer, Rose Hill, Greg Jackson, Beryl Solla, and Rob Tarbell, is on view through February 22 in the South Gallery of the V. Earl Dickinson Building at Piedmont Virginia Community College. 961-5203.