VISUAL ARTS | When the dead came alive in Bloomington: “The Mummy Paradox” by Denise Rouleau and Mark Roberts

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Now that the holidays are over we can get down to some sensible business. Like mummies. You can never have too many mummies, and The Mummy Paradox proved it. An exhibition of recent work by the team of Denise Rouleau and Mark Roberts, The Mummy Paradox, which recently closed at the Bloomington Art Center, featured more than two dozen labor-intensive sculptural works that conveyed the power, intrigue and mystique surrounding our notions of “mummy.”

Fabricated from clay, Rouleau and Roberts created hundreds and hundreds of small mummy figures that were placed in boxes of various configurations as if jars of spice sitting on a shelf. The organic, tactile quality of the mummy works accrued a disconcerting, if not eery aura that was only intensified through countless repetition.

By employing the box form in which to house the protagonist(s), Rouleau’s and Roberts’s work is a contemporary heir apparent to the idiosyncratic personal boxes of the 20th century artist Joseph Cornell. But instead of carefully arranging an encyclopedia of—often found—objects in small boxes in order to create mysterious, personal narratives, The Mummy Paradox seemed to embrace the ancient practice of mummification in all of its forms. And then some. Sporting ironic titles such as Roman Holiday, What Remains, Paris Underground, and One Hundred and Ninety Four Cardinals, in certain boxes the mummy form was replaced by that of a robed cleric-like figure or even skulls.

Mummy Paradox

Soon under the mummy-spell, the viewer realized each became more provocative than the last. What at first seemed a neutral visual landscape of mummy forms snapped into focus as a specific set of individuals, cast in various colors and wearing particular garments. Some were wrapped in gauze or bristles, suggesting pain or bondage. One strained to see a visage beneath the hooded cloak. Individual figures began to stand out and only then did the viewer look more deeply and identify with certain ones—maybe by color, or pose or configuration. With subtlety, a narrative formed. Most took a vertical position as if standing in confining cells, but others reclined—as In Riposa, which featured dozens of reclining mummies in a startling Yves Kline blue.

Mummy Paradox

Countering the small scale of the mummies, although in congregate they formed some very large-scale works such as Crucifix and One Hundred Ninety Four Cardinals, was the floor installation titled Column of Cardinals, a phalanx of mummified cats standing upright on the floor. Injecting a bit of humor, a mouse has been placed at an unsafe distance from the front garde of felines.

Mummy Paradox

The Mummy Paradox, in the many configurations of the works, suggested a range of topics inspired by the ancient Egyptians and their habit of mummifying their cats, early burial practices and a nascent Christianity, the place of religion and belief systems, death and preservation. What could have been a somber show was really dynamic, full of color, detail and memory. It evoked a sense of time and timelessness yet was never too serious about itself. The mummy is truly a paradox: it is dead but still with us.

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