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Bugged out at the Cornell Museum

Bugged out! Dead insects, prescription pills become art @DBCornellMuseum in Delray

The chorus of shouting voices artist Tina La Porta heard alone in her Manhattan apartment seemed to be coming from everywhere. One shouted up at her from the street three stories below. Another sounded like a muted conversation in the hallway outside the door. Another voice sounded like her close friend, who said her name in a cheerful, sing-songy tone.

The voice from the street told La Porta to leap out the window.

"I thought I was being followed, or bugged or something, and someone could see me through the window of where I was staying," recalls La Porta, who had spent time at a psychiatric center for depression. "The voice said, 'Jump, Tina, jump, I'm right down here,' so I got up, grabbed my dresser and moved it to block the window, and thought, 'No way am I jumping.'"

By the time La Porta moved to Fort Lauderdale and doctors finally agreed on a label for her malady – schizophrenia – the artist had endured years of misdiagnosed symptoms, cocktails of prescription pills and their side effects, each bearing the "magical promise of a cure." When piles of unused multicolored medications started to pile up – mood stabilizers prescribed for bipolar disorder and severe depression, neither of which she had – she began gluing them to painted wooden boards in circular arrangements.

Ten of La Porta's mixed-media pill assemblages decorate the upstairs hallway at the Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture in Delray Beach. They're on display as part of the museum's group exhibit "Reimagined," a collection of works by 15 artists who use uncommon materials such as 35 millimeter film, plastic sunglasses and fossilized bugs.

For La Porta, each pill is a lingering reminder of the trial-and-error of misdiagnoses. Her pill-covered creations, which carry titles such as "Melancholic Days" and "Chain of Confusion," appear inviting, almost edible, like a glossy candyland of Red Hots, Mentos and Mike and Ikes.

"That's intentional, because you go to the doctor, and they say, 'Take this, and you won't be depressed. Take this, and you'll lead a normal life and find a mate," says La Porta, who moved to South Florida in 2009 and is represented by Wynwood's Robert Fontaine Gallery. "That's the seduction, the consumption of these chemicals to make your life better, but it's a solution without an end."

The centerpiece of the 75 "Reimagined" artworks is Paul Villinski's lobby installation "Marfa," in which hundreds of black butterflies flutter around a wooden rocking chair balanced atop a rickety stepladder. The butterflies are crafted from cut aluminum soda cans and blackened under a candle flame, says curator Melanie Johanson during a tour of the museum, and calls Villinski's artworks a "driving force" for the group show.

"I'm kind of obsessed with his work," says Johanson, pointing to an installation of 171 swarming butterflies called "For Serena (Gossip Girl)," which appeared on an episode of the popular CW television series . "After seeing the possibilities made from aluminum cans, I started thinking about how other artworks can be re-imagined from unusual objects."

More notable examples can be found in Michael Chearney's abstract acrylic canvasses, which are painted using long-stemmed roses as a paintbrush. Elsewhere is Brian Dettmer's "Americana '54" series, in which he uses surgical tools to carve "organ" shapes into the hollowed-out pages of old hardcover encyclopedias; and Jason Mecier's celebrity portraits. Mecier's "Lindsay Lohan," drawing on the actress' tabloid-courting scandals, crafts her likeness with empty bottles of vodka, syringes and advertisements for Botox.

Six works are by Christopher Marley, a Salem, Ore. artist and taxidermist who buys dead specimens, especially insects, and preserves them in giant, geometric mosaics.

Marley says his fascination with bugs started with a phobia. The former male model spent his early career jetsetting around Europe and Asia filming commercials for companies such as Nike and Sprite, and encountered a "traumatizing" amount of exotic bugs overseas. Now he harvests thousands of specimens that have died from natural causes, displaying beetles and butterflies in circular, colorful arrangements.

"I've obviously gotten over my phobia with a vengeance," Marley says with a laugh. "I really appreciate the color and texture and structure of these amazing organisms, as opposed to the innate creepiness of a giant board covered in bugs."

"Reimagined" is on view through Sept. 6 at the Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture, 51 N. Swinton Ave., in Delray Beach. Admission is a $5 suggested donation. Call 561-243-7922 or go to DelrayArts.org.

pvalys@sun-sentinel.com or Twitter @philvalys

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