Underpinnings sculpted into art forms

ARTISTS are visual data banks storing bits of images from diverse sources. They collect ideas from art history and from popular culture. Their optical landscape stretches from the Lascaux cave paintings to sightings on the planets, and includes all stops in between. The collection of information is the easy part. The assimilation of it into a coherent and compelling art statement becomes the absorbing task.

Chicago artist Diane Simpson has programmed her visual data into unique structures. Unearthing the various ideas that have influenced her art is like an archaeological dig, each new scoop of dirt revealing a new clue as how her ambiguous structures evolved.

Simpson's constructions are nurtured, in part, by industrial structures (kilns, silos), vernacular objects (carriages, radiators), and architectural details (chimneys, gables, windows), rather than by nature. With all these sources, she tabulates information about invented forms, analyzes their structure, responds to patterns or notes the joining of shapes.

Her pieces, which often evoke a likeness to architecture, are not inspired by ``high'' architecture. Rather, she prefers utilitarian buildings that have evolved, like her own constructions, out of an intuitive solution to a structural or functional need; for example, traditional African huts or farm and garden structures.

The source of much of her information is photos - in encyclopedias, manuals, and catalogs. You may buy ``The House of Boughs'' book on garden designs and structures for practical tips; she mines it for formal ideas that might stimulate a sculpture. Often it is only a fragment, the pattern of brick work, that will stick in her thought, to be recalled sometime in the future.

A great many of her enigmatic constructions, however, have grown out of her fascination with costumes. One of her prized source books is a 10-volume encyclopedia, ``Trachten, Kunstwerke und Ger"atschaften'' (``Costumes, Artwork and Tools'') from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, published in Germany in the late 1800s.

Each colored illustration silently waits, seemingly ripe for a Simpson transformation. Again, it may be just the form of a sleeve, the shape of a torso, the slant of a collar, the treatment of a shoulder, or the skeletal pattern of an undergarment that suggests the starting point for a construction. Then each is metamorphosed into a form that echoes its source.

The oddest and most evasive quality of Simpson's constructions is their ability to exist in two spheres simultaneously; that is, they are actually ``drawn sculptures.'' She has transformed a two-dimensional pictorial illusion into a concrete three-dimensional object. These are drawings that have come off the wall to sit in real space.

As Simpson explains, ``They are built as an isometric drawing would be drawn.'' She has placed the oblique-angled slant perspective and shallow space of medieval art, Japanese scroll painting, and Indian miniatures on a flat floor space. In this amphibian state, the constructions actually flatten as you walk around them, alluding to their two-dimensional matrix.

In this way she has ``applied the rules of pictorial illusion to actual space.'' If her present structures are contradictorily drawn toward pictorial illusion, her earlier collagraph prints looked as though they wished they were three-dimensional objects.

This spatial disorientation is best seen in the linear ``Underskirt'' piece. This wood construction was inspired by a small line drawing of a collapsible panier side-hoop framework. The panier tied at the waist and was worn at the hips under full petticoats and skirts during the 18th century.

It was collapsible so that the exaggeratedly full gowns could negotiate doors and chairs.

The panier framework is suggested at the top of Simpson's turquoise and cream construction. A layered, rib-caged skirt reaches to the floor. The spacious skirt's outer parallelism is countered by one bank of inner rib platforms tilting forward and the other half slanting backward. These multiple angles alter as you circle the work, and at one point the skirt appears to flatten.

On another level this structure seems to be a model for a futuristic building balancing on slender stilts. The squares of stiff, white cotton rug canvas, whose open-screen weave translates adeptly as skirt, alludes to an architectural module or a building block pattern. The complex linear flow of precisely measured angles and meticulously crafted joints meld into a building of couture fabrication.

``Dress Frame'' is a more literal depiction of a costume. This cream-stained wood and pale Tuscany red colored construction was inspired by the farthingale skirt in the Vel'azquez court painting ``The Infanta Maria Teresa.''

The horizontal hoop structure looks like a Post-Modern building skeleton. Its simplicity contradicts the farthingale's original function. No longer a framework for displaying fabric, it is instead a linear shell cloaking skewed angles. The oblique angles of the inner planes and the shoulder-strapped bodice contradict the piece's symmetry and create, as in ``Underskirt,'' an apparent flattening as the construction is circled. Simpson has seen intrinsic form in the farthingale where others see only the artifice of an extravagant costume.

Once more Simpson shows her focus to be formal manipulation, not representation. She investigates how we enclose ourselves - in costume, building, or conveyance - and she creates protective structures that shelter and depict an ambivalent space and unfold an engaging sense of form. Appropriating images from these diverse sources, she transforms them into compelling personal objects, and provides us with a bridge into the inventive environment of the creative imagination.

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