Myths and fairy tales often involve sinister characters whose powers allow them to physically transform their victims or manipulate the outcome of events. Nashville-based Adrienne Outlaw sees a parallel in today’s world, where advances in biotechnology allow scientists, pharmacologists and surgeons to alter the body, mind and nature, albeit in the name of progress. In her exhibition “Witch’s Brew,” Outlaw assumes the role of mad scientist to create beautifully crafted sculptures that mix the natural and the manmade, and pose the question of whether physical beauty may perhaps conceal internal dangers.

Scattered randomly throughout the two galleries were works from Outlaw’s ongoing “Fecund” series, which she began in 2003. As with Duchamp’s Étant donnés, viewers are invited to peek into a small aperture in these wall-mounted sculptures to see the objects arranged inside. The sculptures’ exteriors are lushly decorated with velvet, fur, beads, leather, crocheted yarn and other sensual materials. Inside, however, are objects that can inflict harm: sharp barnacles, stinging bees, porcupine quills, straight pins, sea urchins. Some are even arranged around a mirror so that the viewer’s reflected eye is surrounded by the ominous materials.

Ten works from the “Fecund Video” series, begun in 2007, were also included. With no exterior ornamentation, these austere wall-mounted works are decidedly colder. Viewers must peer into conelike shapes painted the color of light flesh, which gives the impression of peering through the nipple of a breast into the interior of a body. Inside, small video screens contain looped clips that range from Outlaw breastfeeding her baby (the distorted image has sexual connotations) to cellular division and embryonic bloodflow recorded in the lab of her biophysicist husband. The series alludes to Outlaw’s concern about the growing distance between technological advances and the bioethics field.

A more interactive representation of this concern is her disquieting sculpture How to Mistake yourfor a (a nod to one of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s books on brain function, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat). The work requires two participants to kneel on red velvet pillows, facing each other across a pedestal. After each dons an exquisitely crafted hat (one made from rabbit fur and a blowfish, the other woven sinew), the subjects gaze into a small mirror set at eye level on a rack of laboratory pipettes. When focusing on the mirror, the participants see themselves. But as their vision shifts and refocuses, their eyes appear to be superimposed on the other’s face, as if a part of them had been cloned and grafted onto their partner. The pipettes contained human, animal and plant matter, serving as a reminder of the insidiousness of genetic modification. Perhaps Outlaw is not only questioning the scientific advances of the present but providing us a glimpse of the future.

Photo: View of Adrienne Outlaw’s interactive sculpture How to Mistake Your ____ for a ____, 2011; at Whitespace.