In Saya Woolfalk's world, few of the normal rules apply.
It's a brightly colored landscape populated with strange creatures, a place where race and gender are mutable as clay and where plant and animal life are joined as one.
This sculpture-filled utopian vision, which Woolfalk calls "No Place," has been taking shape in the main rooms of the University at Buffalo Art Gallery for the past two weeks. It will join an exhibition called "Up Down Around," a show of work by ascendant local painter Ani Hoover, in the adjacent Lightwell Gallery.
The New York City-based Woolfalk, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been steadily gaining notice for the whimsical and multidisciplinary mastery of her work. Her current project, which has been in development for several years, is a sort of ever-expanding imaginary world that contains elements of folklore, storytelling and a certain sense of childlike magic that belies its underlying political nature.
"I was thinking of ways of kind of reimagining our symbolic landscape in a playful way, to kind of bring new visions of how we look at the world," Woolfalk said, "but doing it through toys and performance and masquerade and play."
Woolfalk's exhibition includes a performance segment that will feature several students from the university's dance program, called "A Ritual of the Empathics," at 4 p.m. April 15. It also includes a video, "An Ethnography of No Place," produced in collaboration with anthropologist Rachel Lears. It attempts to describe the inner workings of Woolfalk's wild utopian vision with actual anthropology, resulting in a strange document that provides a deeper sense of Woolfalk's complex mythology.
"The ideas are utopian in the sense that I'm trying to imagine what a perfect permutation of a world system could be," Woolfalk said. "So [the inhabitants] are part plant, part human, transform gender, transform race and they're always kind of changing, they're always becoming something else."
In the vertiginous Lightwell Gallery, six 30-by-5-foot paintings by Ani Hoover tower overhead. Their intense colors, some of which mirror Woolfalk's similarly energetic palette, seem to pop off the walls.
Hoover, who has become a familiar presence on the local art scene since her inclusion in the 2007 incarnation of "Beyond/In Western New York," has been making increasingly large and dramatic versions of her trademark works. But she has stuck with her style -- applying ink, watercolor, spray paint and acrylic paint to a plastic material called Yupo paper to create hundreds of variously sized and often drippy orbs.
In "Up Down Around," Hoover said she was out to capture the idea of transitions -- of passing time -- whether it's a lifetime, a season or a year. The pieces in the show, with titles such as "Early," "Aware," "Hush" and "Immerse," all embody changes from bottom to top, with the colors fading, intensifying or subtly shifting as the eye floats skyward.
Hoover described her evolving ideas about the exhibition, which took her about a year to complete.
"Initially, I was thinking about opposites, and now I've started thinking about this as being a journey from one thing to another thing," she said. "I was thinking about a continuum of maybe a person's life or a year."
Whether the paintings are about transitions, about color, or simply what you make of them, Hoover admits this much: "I think they're just not unpleasant to look at," she joked. "That helps a bit."
WHAT: "Saya Woolfalk: No Place" and "Ani Hoover: Up Down Around"
WHEN: "No Place" through May 9; "Up Down Around" through June 20
WHERE: University at Buffalo Art Gallery, North Campus, Amherst
INFO: 645-6912 or ubartgalleries.buffalo.edu