Skin trade 

Trade traces enigmatic patterns at Kiang

In the smart, coolly seductive show Trade, Washington, D.C., artist James Huckenpahler uses the motif of skin to address ideas of gender, race, normalcy, abnormality and all the varied forms of our differences.

Huckenpahler's deceptively simple, lucid digital prints on rice paper couldn't be more appropriate to the vast, chilly gallery-as-laboratory ambiance of Kiang Gallery. Created from scratch on a computer and then transferred to paper via printer, Hucken-pahler's faux-skin prints are a tantalizingly weird, Cronenbergian collision of the techno and the organic. Blurring the line between flesh and garment, the artist creates his works in the form of a dressmaker's patterns laid out flat on their paper backdrops like an animal-hide rug. Huckenpahler's work is also cleverly sculptural in the abstract and interactive sense, requiring the mind's eye to construct from the flat form a three-dimensional object and encouraging the viewer to "complete" objects, which then utterly confound in their lack of resemblance to any familiar form.

Some of Huckenpahler's patterns resemble the outline of wide pants legs or a vest, though other patterns are less easily identified. Huckenpahler uses these more recognizable "garments" to disorient when it comes to other, more freakish forms like "Elizabeth Arden," which looks like a dress whose back portion comes with weird gill-like vents. Some of the variations in the artist's patterns are more subtle. The difference between the vest pattern in "acquisitor of all desires" and the one in "hand-me-down," for instance, is a small slit in the neck, which suggests the often subtle differentiation of gender as a slight variation in form.

The texture of the patterns is uncannily skin-like, considering their origin in computer imagery. Their pinkish, almost iridescent, tones are intricately varied across their surfaces like the map of whorls and ridges of one's fingerprint viewed under a microscope. The color gradations of these patterns shift dramatically, changing as quickly and eerily as the opening and closing eyes of a hologram Jesus, as you incline your head left and right in front of the object. Though the creamy rice paper seems mere backdrop to the subtle color of Huckenpahler's patterns (while also resembling the tissue-delicate look of actual sewing patterns), the paper itself has a formal relevance -- its vellum delicacy reminiscent of white skin, the bits of brown fiber dotting its surface akin to the freckles and moles and scars of our own flesh.

But Huckenpahler's is not simply a chameleon game of imitation. As the artist himself notes, "I prefer the simulation of skin to the representation of skin." He uses the idea of clothes as a stand-in for our social skin, a coded and telling vestment that at once unites and separates us. With their visual proximity to skin, the obvious suggestion is of some defect, injury or mutation in the artist's mysteriously transfigured garments. That we recognize some of the dress forms makes any variation all the more troubling and freakish: The work shows our impulse to equalize and find consistency and comfort in sameness and patterns whose holes and openings and slits can all be accounted for. By the same token, the work challenges our conformist thinking and how the mind works overtime to make any variation conform to the "norm," no matter how difficult or impossible that task might be.

Trade runs through July 15 at Kiang Gallery, 1923 Peachtree Road. Tues.-Fri. 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sat. noon-5 p.m. 404-351-5477.

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