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Time to grow up: RoCo comes of age 

            As the arts center prepared for its big re-opening on Friday, October 3, Elizabeth McDade, executive director, admitted that the name change had a lot to do with "growing up the organization." But it is also about breathing new life into something that, fortunately, has not been allowed to sputter out of existence in these economically challenged times. The opening also marks something else of importance: the move downtown, to 137 East Avenue. With its white walls, cement floors, and exposed industrial heating ducts, RoCo is a picture of contemporary art chic.

            But has RoCo become more conservative with age? McDade initially answers that question by saying figurative work is what she likes to look at. After further reflection, she says that anyone who thinks the gallery has become too conservative should either submit proposals for work they'd rather see and/or join the curatorial committee.

            RoCo's inaugural show, Upstate Invitational, is the manifestation of a recurring exhibition the institution has been organizing for a number of years, and is intended to showcase artwork by under-recognized and emerging regional artists. This year, the Invitational includes the work of eight artists, ranging from mixed-media glass sculpture, installations, and interactive CDs to oil paintings, computer-generated paintings, and digital photographs.

            There's this "pretty/scary" thing going on throughout the exhibit. McDade used that phrase to describe one artist's work in particular. But, for us, it's a credit to McDade's consistency of vision that this casual remark could touch on a theme wending its way throughout the show.

            Laura Ledbetter combines the art of taxidermy with the art of the handmade in Squirrel Tower and Two Coats. In Two Coats, conically shaped and patchwork quilted "bodies" are each embroidered with a number and given the head and paws of a rabbit --- the total number of bunny bodies designed to correspond with the actual number of rabbit pelts it takes to make one coat. Resting on the stuffed torsos, taxidermic heads flop like a tam-o'-shanter or tilt resignedly. Yet, as seen in the environment of the art space, complete with the delicately hued floral print fabric, what were once a number of living, breathing, lettuce-eating rabbits are now parts of a reanimated whole. And that, according to the artist, is sort of what it's all about: that here, "the animals are able to evolve into a new existence."

            Phillip Mallory Jones' Mirror and Smoke is a mesmerizing interactive computer program that shuttles you through various narratives. Do you enter a room, climb a staircase, or walk into an electronically animated montage? The montage comes alive with stories, dances, and rituals. In his artist's statement, Jones talks about an Akan word, Sankofa, which means, "looking back into the past to discover knowledge that will benefit the future." Making connections to "ancestral friends" allows you to act as an archaeologist who uncovers and reconstructs ruins. It also brings you into a reflective and amorphous present --- a present dictated by African history and informed by artists, philosophers, and prophets who act as guides to ritual, family, and myth.

            Some of Clifford Wun's extremely detailed oil-on-wood panel paintings of women stare at you with intense eyes, while others seem to be caught up in very reflective moments, oblivious to the eyes that look at them and the hands that paint them. The illusion of realism creates images of models with perfect, young, plastic skin. And like young skin, the surfaces of the paintings are smooth and shiny, light and glowing, interrupted only by slight imperfections on the face of the wood panels. They look like slick, glossy fashion photographs. The reflective surfaces seem to be barriers, both physical and psychological, to any personal information about the models that might lie below the surface.

            In Red Barrett you're confronted by a Helmut Newton-like Amazon in a black dress, her shoulders exposed, her black hair framing a face with full, red lips and piercing emerald green eyes. The background, a colorfield of smooth mint green, creates a striking contrast. The smoothness of the panel and the luminous layers of oil paint homogenize all of these elements, however separate and distinctly defined. We recognize the human form with all of its seductive qualities. But for all of the familiarity, something is wrong. The longer you stare at the paintings the more uncanny, monstrous, and grotesque they become. In this way, the monstrous and unhuman become superhuman. The perfect surfaces are both repulsive and seductive, and the paintings beautiful.

            Orbs, satellites, and probes... The work of Robin Cass is suspended in the windows and in the entranceway of the gallery. Cass uses glass, rubber, felt, screws, and wire, and transforms them into objects she calls Divers and Travelers. At first they seem crude, even rusty or dirty, neglected and forgotten. But you can find extreme concern for detail --- wonderful and subtle patinas, surface changes. They are meant to look old, as if from another time, and their meanings are cryptic and uses forgotten. They ask to be deciphered. What was the purpose of the multi-eyed sphere, Seraphim? Constructed of multiple lenses, what was it supposed to see? Is this the eye of a celestial being? Perhaps it is some sort of prosthesis. Or, maybe, all of the "relics" of Divers and Travelers were left behind on the set of some science-fiction movie. But that's for you to decide.

Upstate Invitational is on display at Rochester Contemporary, 137 East Avenue, through November 1. Hours: Wednesday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Admission is free. Info: 461-2222.

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