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Hide, Seek

Illinois shows off the enigmatic work of one of its unassuming treasures

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Throughout her long career, Carolyn Plochmann has been known for densely layered paintings of androgynous figures and mystical objects. Her combination of acrylic and oil, gold leaf and collaged scraps of pattern and text have resulted in intensely introspective images that are both hauntingly melancholic and lusciously textured.

Those who have written about Plochmann during her 50-some-year career seem as enamored with Plochmann herself and her unassuming life in rural Southern Illinois as they are with her work. Debra K. Tayes, curator of Plochmann's exhibition at the Southern Illinois Art Gallery, is no exception. She notes that Plochmann is "extremely perceptive, incredibly well read and of immense intellect."

That exhibition -- Carolyn Plochmann: Between Two Worlds -- comprises 31 recent works, including several fine examples of the artist's enigmatic and complex sensibility. In "Between the Acts" (2001), the stoic expressions delineated in the profiles of two figures are underscored by a surface of paint that has been repeatedly abraded and reapplied. A richly patterned garment floating in the upper register is, on closer inspection, a fragment of a street map of Rome. The artist turns the Tiber River into a sash, extending it off the map with calligraphic strokes of water blue. Plochmann so fluidly integrates collaged elements, such as the map, into her compositions that it is not immediately apparent that she has not painted them herself.

In "Separate Meanings" (1999), a Russian print of a girl in national dress and children's drawings labeled "SARAH" and "EDWARD" are affixed to the canvas in painted niches below a handwritten quote. It seems as if Plochmann is exercising an esoteric signage, compelling the viewer to consider these humble objects and the meaning of their cryptic syntax. In "Correspondence" (1992), the lines of a face assert themselves through a shroudlike cloth next to a tin of Turkish Delight, a box of jacks and an insect as Turkish letters cut across a flat expanse of textured green and gray. In "Being and Becoming" (2002), mellifluous lines accentuating the gnarled joints of hands and feet are repeated in the nodes of a barren tree.

The sense that Plochmann is employing her own kind of hidden symbolism is heightened by the fact that, like Northern Renaissance painters, she frequently dismisses true perspective in favor of detailing everyday objects, tilting tabletops to offer viewers a better look at the items resting on their surfaces. In "Problematic" (1999-2000), a skewed blue tabletop holding a precariously placed fruit dish recalls the famously slanted table with majolica vase and prayer book of Robert Campin's "Merode Altarpiece." An occasional touch of gold leaf further invites comparisons of Plochmann's paintings to icons.

Although Plochmann's rich palette and altered perspective, coupled with exquisitely detailed and sometimes incongruous objects, lend themselves to mystical content, because her subject matter is largely derived from that which is found in and around her book-lined home, the paintings, in one sense, are simply a catalog of the things Plochmann likes to look at -- the folds of a dress, the notched legs of an insect or serpentine lines of letters. Perhaps the meaning of her work is elusive because the real subject is Plochmann's deeply felt curiosity and attraction to her subject matter. She's able to encrust the canvas with beauty while infusing it with undertones of distress. In earlier work, she has depicted figures in gestures of despair with beautifully expressive and elegant strokes, enlarging the hands of the figures and capturing them in the act of clutching or pointing.

Although the show contains many such instances of the radiant poeticism for which Plochmann is known, some works fall short of her usual transcendent delivery. In "Before the Concert" (1998), two pinafore-clad girls flank a mustachioed man with a cello. Highlighting the antiquated dress and smiles of the girls, the painting comes across as more anachronistic than timeless. Expunging any negativity from the content of this piece, Plochmann loses the sense of paradox that is so intriguing in her earlier work. Without the devotional attentiveness to the layering of paint and image, such paintings are reluctant to bring forth the meditative and multifaceted imaginings that have for decades been the hallmark of her work.

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