The pungent smell of peeled onions welcomes viewers to a rambunctious exhibit of installation art at Edge Cooperative Gallery. Three artists turn the alternative space into separate and diverse environments, each defined by gallery walls. Since works constructed onsite like this are almost impossible to sell, the dedication and sacrifice of installation artists is phenomenal. But given the strong appeal to the senses and the sheer wonder evoked by parts of this show, there must have been some magic used, too.

The oniony opener, Delanie Jenkins's "Dissection of Memory," relies on natural materials and obsessive repetition to make its artistic statement. The rough-lumber frame of a peaked-roof house fills up the gallery's first room with its raw, enclosing lines. In the middle of this faux cottage stands a work table, its entire surface filled to overflowing with deep piles of brown onion skins. Bits of white onion strung on hundreds of threads stretched between studs provide the walls of the house. This labor-intensive centerpiece and surround are just the beginning, however; the real marvel is overhead. Instead of a ceiling, Jenkins has hung an attic-shaped canopy made of clustered bouquets of identical dried flower stems and seed pods, a prickly covering of spiky beauty that illustrates both pain and pleasure.

Jenkins's marathon feat of snipping and stitching (the artist had only a few days to put the piece together) parallels activities traditionally associated with women: homemaking, kitchen work, sewing and gathering. And the metaphors implied by cutting the onion--its many translucent layers (reflecting life's complexities), its "thin skin," its tearjerking capabilities, its heavy, unmistakable odor--all humorously refer to domestic life. But in Jenkins's hands, all of these elements seem exaggerated and surrealistic, suggesting a scenario of madness mixed with delicacy.

Reminiscent of a miniature Anne Hamilton installation, "Dissection of Memory" lacks only a warehouse of room to make it truly successful; the cramped space at Edge does not show the piece's multiple levels and tender beauty to the best advantage.

In the next room, the objects in Margaret Wagner's sleek video installation, "immediate," present a tough, confident facade: Three TV monitors are set up to play in sequence, their screens facing head-and-shoulders portraits on sheet metal of Wagner impersonating the "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" monkeys of popular culture. But the contents of Wagner's highly personal videotaped footage expose the artist's essential vulnerability.

As the reflective "audience" watches, a series of revealing tapes plays on the screens, all offering stereotyped images of women culled from TV commercials and movies--simpering models who live for mascara, happy slaves in aprons rustling up some grub for hubby, pitches for little girls' toys. Cut in with this material are moving shots of Wagner herself, not the ideal of TV beauty but an ordinary woman, confused and spinning, unable to conform to the commercial world's demand to buy its brand of loveliness-in-a-bottle, made to feel ashamed of her body, forced into a false position of deviance and need by the all-encompassing advertising campaign. One stunningly unforgettable image: the naked torso of a woman, slack and scarred from childbirth or surgery, the word "FAT" painfully scratched into the skin of her abdomen.

The physical elements of the piece--monitors, electronic timing, silkscreens, etc.--are orchestrated with great care, the results as polished as the best global video art. This is a refreshing difference from most local works, which unfortunately tend to be poverty-induced hodgepodges of borrowed equipment and slapdash engineering. Thank you, Ms. Wagner, for showing us how to do it right.

Leaving politics and feminism behind, photographer/sculptor Michael Mendez goes for a scary effect as he transforms Edge's basement into a pseudosatanic rabbit hole, a black-painted tunnel for good little Alices to fall into unawares. Actually a spooky showcase for the artist's book of photography, bone rabbit, the installation squeezes viewers' perspectives as they traverse the length of the narrow, low-ceilinged room, which is decorated with Mendez's skull-filled imagery. At the far end an easy chair invites viewers to sit and read--or to be sacrificed, perhaps?

All three of these intriguing installations have the power to send viewers to another reality, surrounding them with the artist's vision. Fans of this rare art form will be enchanted by the spell the show weaves.

Installations by Delanie Jenkins, Margaret Wagner and Michael Mendez, through April 24 at Edge Cooperative Gallery, 3658 Navajo, 477-7173.

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Hart Hill