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Don't Squeeze The Shaman

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Hands-On Art: Jacqueline Thurston's 1996 cibachrome print 'Blessings'

Jacqueline Thurston's 'Cycle of Songs' looks for spiritual meaning in dream symbols

By Ann Elliott Sherman

AS THE MAIN PART of her 10-year retrospective at Villa Montalvo, Jacqueline Thurston presents Cycle of Songs, a series of "dream chambers" pairing original poems printed on handmade paper with cibachrome prints of photo assemblages inside beautifully crafted wooden containers or covers. The imagery in both poems and photos is drawn from dreams, memories and what Thurston calls "the talismanic spirit of objects, places and rituals."

The artist describes herself as working under the spell of these influences, and at their best, the Songs convey a kind of surrender to sacred mystery universal enough that the viewer can share in the epiphany. This connection happened more successfully with the works most rooted in memory.

In Winged Grief, a five-part poem recounts coming to terms with her mother's death. Thurston does a nice job of letting imagery convey both the bleakness of loss and evanescent moments of spiritual connection through nature while maintaining an elegiac spareness and restraint. The five poetic stanzas are mirrored in the photo image of slender turret-shell digits on a hand shaped out of chain mail resting on wet ashes.

Nestled in the hole in the hand's palm is a pearly nautilus shell. This symbolism suggests a guarded, heavy emptiness partially filled by a discovered reminder of the central spiraling connection between life and death. The container here is appropriately a box covered in black linen.

For all their heartfelt striving for mythic power, many of the works inspired by dreams or ancient icons don't translate nearly as readily. The imagery in photo and text suffers from a sense of removal--like a dream one is told about, as opposed to experiencing, or a symbol plucked out of its cultural fabric, too obviously selected to serve as an archetype.

A piece like Song of the Shaman--which includes a stick-and-abalone figure reminiscent of Native American cave painting, scattered juniper, entwined Celtic rings of auburn hair and textual references to a "forest birthing place"--comes dangerously close to a New Age smorgasbord served with a chaser of Andrew Lloyd Webber lyrics, and is just as hard to swallow. As René Magritte, a master of finding images that deliver a disturbing reminder of the negotiable nature of reality, put it, "One cannot speak about mystery; one must be seized by it."

SEVERAL WORKS fall somewhere in between, a mix of captivating and merely puzzling images, poetry both nimble and overreaching. The handsome maple cross housing Song of the Moon has the simple elegance of design and joinery that makes Shaker furniture or Japanese temples serve both spirit and function.

The cibachrome print inside attests to Thurston's masterful lighting design. In one corner of a ground resembling shiny, opaque black beads, the artist has arranged a crescent of charred paper to serve as nest for three rounded pieces of gleaming abalone. Tiny, clear crystal beads fill a dark, upturned shell. In the topmost corner, a bear paw takes shape from a pool of directed light surrounding a dark cowry and three talonlike tubular beads. A small universe of darkness limned with occasional shine, the piece creates alternate sensations of obscurity and clarity, much like a walk in the moonlight.

But on the other arm of the cross, the graphite drawing is a total riddle. The moon's surface viewed through a telescope? Swells of surf or clouds? Nondescript rather than abstracted, it presented a mystery more perplexing than inspiring.

The poem in between these images uses the kind of romantic diction one might expect in a paean to the moon. Lack of surprise doesn't doom the effort to failure, but it does dampen the desired ecstatic effect.

Thurston's song cycle is completed by Song of the Fire, a series of dream chambers joined to form an accordion screen of bleached maple that has been dyed to look charred. The tone of the segments varied wildly, from apocalyptic visions to nightmares and biblical legends.

By this time, a certain weariness with ravens, mantles of fire, bones and dancing under the moon had set in for someone like me who can't last through a Stevie Nicks song, so that the most effective moments were unexpectedly understated: pressing against a mountaintop to "feel spring pierce the awakened earth"; a mother's suddenly realized vulnerability to loss; the visual image of a heart-shaped shell split down the middle and tied together with a slender thread. Rather than attempting to recover what once spoke to the collective subconscious of an ancient people, these whisper of what lies beneath still-familiar things.

Jacqueline Thurston: Cycle of Songs and Other Works runs through Feb. 7 at the Gallery at Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. (408/961-5813)

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From the January 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro.

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