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Visual Puns Set in Folk Art Sculpture

NOW and then, the most modest of galleries offers memorable experiences. Such is the case with the current exhibition at the Arts Council of Rockland Gallery here. Its exhibition space consists only of limited portions of an L-shaped hallway and one nondescript display case, but that is where one can find the quirky, and sometimes profound, works of Ruth Geneslaw.

The influence of folk art on the mostly polychromed wood sculptures of Ms. Geneslaw is obvious. Her stiffly postured figures and the brightly painted and patterned surfaces recall the sculptures of Lavern Kelly, another folk artist who shares Ms. Geneslaw's interest in the visual pun, especially when it comes to religion, marriage and family.

Ms. Geneslaw's social concerns are most apparent in her piece titled ''Carrying Baggage'' (1994). In it, one sees a man and a woman dressed for corporate success, toting transparent suitcases that contain references to the so-called baggage of life. They confront one another as if ready to do battle, having both won and lost conflicts regarding family, religion, money and vices. Behind the pair, a snake awaits the outcome, ready to offer the forbidden fruit when given the chance.

''In Dog We Trust'' (1996-99) is Ms. Geneslaw's most blatant strike against our faltering governmental image. Two groupings of seven politicians flanking a flag-waving Uncle Sam in front of the Capitol in Washington set the stage. In front of this mass of men sits a smiling dog, as it awaits the end of what seems to be an exaggerated photo session to ingest its golden-brown dog biscuit.

The artist gets to the meat of her issues by inscribing along the base of the sculpture three quotes that cast a long and suspicious shadow across the nation's political landscape: ''Read my lips . . . No new taxes'' -- Bush; ''I have never obstructed justice . . . I am not a crook'' -- Nixon; ''I did not have sexual relations with that woman'' -- Clinton.''

Ms. Geneslaw also sets her sights on more benign matters like hobbies. In ''Birdwatching, Bird Watching'' (1996), she takes aim at three pseudo-naturalists clad in outfits that would rival some of the most outlandish retro-golf outfits, as they carefully experience nature by observing a lone bird. Ms. Geneslaw hints, albeit not so subtly, at the craziness of this group by covering the base of this vignette with Van Gogh-like swirls of line and color.

''Wearing Too Many Hats'' (1996) is Ms. Geneslaw's nearly complete story of the contemporary homemaker. The subject, an unfortunate woman in her middle to late 30's, requires four arms to keep up with life's demands. Each one of her hands holds something different: a gardening trowel, a cooking spoon, a snow shovel and a paintbrush. On her head sits a stack of hats, which range from chef to chauffeur, as she races against the time regulated by a six-handed clock. At her feet rests the family dog, a metaphor for leisure, which presents the perfect barometer to gauge the subject's bleak prospects. Behind the dog, and under what looks to be an entranceway table, sits a pile of books bearing titles that one might assume highlight the artist's preferred interests: ''Cataloguing,'' ''Abakanowicz,'' ''Humanities'' and Eva Hesse.

''The Support Group'' (1993) contains Ms. Geneslaw's clearest message. Here, one sees five seated women of various ages and backgrounds who literally and figuratively carry the weight of their individual worlds on their shoulders as represented by miniature dollar bills, houses, family members and titled books that symbolize career and education. As she did in ''In Dog We Trust,'' Ms. Geneslaw has collected phrases, or in this case a number of cliches that would amplify the apparent thinking here: ''Hope springs eternal,'' ''Lay your cards on the table,'' ''Blood is thicker than water,'' ''Old habits die hard'' and ''Hang in there.''

Her most humorous piece is titled ''Eating Crow'' (1995). One sees a middle-age couple dining out in what looks like a very intimate restaurant. The menu specials on the wall read: ''Sow wild oats,'' ''Cool as a cucumber,'' ''Spill the beans,'' ''Cook his goose,'' ''Eat crow'' and ''Smart cookie.'' Thankfully, the melancholy man, who is about to ingest a plate of crow, has a nice bottle of wine to wash it down with. Her plate possesses a steak, string beans and a few carrot slices, giving the viewer a clear picture of her status. The fun here is the viewer's speculation regarding the overt clues of this dilemma, which are humorously underscored by the man's forlorn look.

Ms. Geneslaw's talent for carving and painting is most apparent in the details. The overhanging lights above the wall in ''Eating Crow,'' the objects in the clear cases in ''Carrying Baggage'' and the bride's bouquet in ''The Step Children'' all have a style and a finesse about them. Ms. Geneslaw's art is folk, not just because it looks like folk but also because it deals with personal or shared heritage and history through a sense of community. It is honest, and, above all, it maintains a celebration of our very existence despite life's inadequacies or imperfections.


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