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Raisa Nosova shines in “Stripped” at PRIME Gallery

by Tris McCall

Raisa Nosova makes glass look tough. Not invulnerable, not shatter-proof, but nevertheless load-bearing and substantial, hefty, sturdy as marble, with its claim to permanence made apparent. Nosova does this without stripping her favored material of its essential glass-ness — transparent, cool, smooth, and a little dangerous. A peg could slip. A glass sculpture might fall and break into fragments that you might step on. Glass challenges you to think about your responsibility to it. It asks you to consider the potential consequences of careless behavior.

This tension between fragility and strength is underscored and amplified by the subject of Nosova’s glass sculptures. The artist makes breasts — human breasts, in a human female size — out of glass, adorns them with decorations, and hangs them on white walls. Nosova’s mammary sculptures are central to “Stripped,” a forceful group show that will be on view at the PRIME Gallery (351 Palisade Ave. between Franklin and Ferry) for the next three months. Tess Hansen of Curate NJ and gallery director Maria Kosdan have positioned the sculpture to catch and refract the overhead light. The thickness and unevenness of the glass, its curved surfaces that mimic the bulges and recesses of musculature, and Nosova’s general refusal to make things smooth for the viewer means that light is broken up into little pools and eddies and curlicues. Illumination passing through the glass achieves the quality of water. The glass itself, supple as it looks, also achieves a fluid quality, too. Everything about the sculptures suggest liquidity, which is appropriate, since Raisa Nosova uses actual breast milk in her art.

This may all sound a little on the nose to you. As statements about female resilience and the worrisome fragility of human biology go, it’s hard to get more blatant than a glass breast. Two things rescue her work from obviousness, and mark her, unquestionably, as one of the best and most fearless artists working in Hudson County. First, the objects she crafts are undeniably beautiful, and often quite clever, too. Her sense of play is apparent in all of her pieces, and her sculptures hum with organic activity: bees alighted on drops of yellow honey, globules of milk suspended beneath the glass surface, flowers painted in acrylic on the underside of the mammary curves. All of this is a little destabilizing — pretend insects on pretend skin — and that is part of the sculptor’s point. In one piece, she sticks a brass spigot where a nipple should be. She’s not afraid to take her metaphors to their logical conclusion.

Which brings us to the second reason Raisa Nosova is indispensable: her unflinching commitment to her concept. At a time when visual artists are, too often, content to be merely decorative, Nosova is motivated, and she wears that motivation proudly. She refuses to hide from any of the unsettling implications of her pieces: all the trauma, bodily harm, vulnerability, emotional peril, and life-giving fluidity of womanhood and motherhood, is right there on the (see-through) surface. Given the alacrity that radiates from her pieces, you can bet that Nosova has thought all of this through. Nothing about her pieces feels accidental. Her work is a very specific response to actual human experiences that many people have had, and it’s a joy to see an artist express herself so clearly and with such confidence.

The other three artists in “Stripped” speak in complete sentences, too. Tali Rose specializes in collage, and her superimpositions of salacious magazine models atop fields of mushrooms and beds of flowers do make their points about the popular presentation of the female form. But I’m just as impressed by her backgrounds, which are often weaved, elaborately, from strips of white and black paper, and create a gaze-warping mesh. Her two best pieces don’t even have any pretty girls in them: they’re forest images in which the trees are virtually swallowed by their pulsing surroundings. Kat Block renders more conventional forest landscapes and invites an orange-white sun to blast through her stands of rail-narrow trees. Kiki Buccini, who calls herself CutPasteFace, is the purest collage artist of the four, and her mixed media prints of a small, elegant woman, behatted and dressed in red, treading carefully on narrow paths beneath massive celestial bodies reinforce the show’s themes of female persistence and the challenges of the woman’s journey.

Nosova has other work in “Stripped,” too: portraits of young women that straddle the line between sexy and utterly shattered. In “Silver Glow,” the most arresting piece in a very outspoken and attention-grabbing show, the subject of the portrait is beautiful, but the colors are all wrong: her skin is pale blue, her lips are canary yellow, and her eyes are flame red. Is she at a club, lit by stage gels, leading a suitor to the dance floor with one provocatively-raised eyebrow? Or is it that this woman is malnourished and mangled by modern life, defiant, unbroken, daring the viewer to understand her? “Silver Clown” provides a clue. Here, the energetically applied slashes of paint and the distant, dislocated look on the face of the woman depicted are less ambiguous and more obviously pained. Her arm is swung, defensively, in front of her, but her hand is cupped. Best of all is a modest gouache called “Yuki,” with a woman looking down, eyes closed, the red of her hair giving way to the dark blue of her garment. It’s a study in quiet dislocation, and it’s undeniably gorgeous.

These paintings are strongly reminiscent of other excellent portraits that hung in the PRIME Gallery last year. Mr Mustart and Clarence Rich are best known as muralists and outdoor artists, but “Polarity” showed that they could capture minute expressions, quite brilliantly, on canvas, too. Mustart and Rich show us faces and bodies that have come in contact with the challenges of life in the city; Raisa Nosova’s does something similar, but from a distinctly female perspective. In its acknowledgement of struggle, it’s realistic, in its depiction of the ennobling qualities of existence, it’s fundamentally heroic. Nosova knows: we’re going to get bruised out there. What matters is standing as tough as you can, and as proud as you can, for as long as you can.

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