Sometimes loss represents an ending; sometimes it is a beginning. "Gwen Bigham: Becoming," on view at Central Piedmont Community College's Elizabeth Ross Gallery, walks this path with a mixture of delicacy and power.
The central object in "Becoming" is a small, pressed-metal chair with a heart-shaped back. Bigham kept running across these little chairs at flea markets and consignment stores; attracted to their common nature, she eventually acquired eight of them.
Most of the works in "Becoming" feature a chair arrayed with a variety of materials so that each chair tells a different story. With their profusion of veils, pearls, dolls and other feminine objects, these sculptures have a dreamy quality, as if a child has wandered into an attic and found a trunk filled with treasures from her grandmother. But they are composed, too, of things that hurt, such as broken glass, pins and splintered wood.
Bigham, formerly of Matthews and now living Asheville, uses this combination of the sweet and the painful to address the idea that both are essential to growth. Although these works deal with sometimes sorrowful life transitions, they are neither morbid nor cloyingly uplifting. Instead, they are thoughtful and quiet.
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In "Release," a chair covered in shattered glass sits atop charred remains salvaged from a neighbor's house. Intended to represent a funeral pyre, it is by turns somber and vibrant. There is a surprising visual relationship between the burnt wood, which has a sensuous, satiny look, and the sparkling glass.
"And Then She Was Gone" is one of the simpler works in the show, but it is also one of the most compelling. The modest chair, mounted to the wall, is transformed into a child bride via a graceful veil that falls to the floor. Piercing the veil are numerous corsage pins, which for Bigham symbolize not only pain and beauty but transition, too, since corsages are associated with emotional life events.
"Untitled (We Were One in a Dream)" reveals a yearning for connection. Two sewing bodices covered with wax and fragrant rose petals engulf the chair. Tucked in the back of this piece is a tiny wax doll nestled in an eggshell.
Commanding its own darkened room is "Vanity." In this shimmering, subtly lit work, the chair is throne-like, propped up on a table that is placed in a delicate sandbox. "Vanity" features glass in several phases and manifestations - sand, shards and mirrors. While the other pieces in the show display a sense of being lost in thought, "Vanity" is dramatic and decisive.
Just weeks before the opening of this exhibition, Bigham was taking pieces apart only to re-imagine them. She acknowledges that after the show, the individual works may change again. For Bigham, they are more than sculptures; they are stops on a journey.