Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Field of Vision: Artists Explore" Place at Racine Art Museum

This is essentially the same review that appeared in Art City last week. I offer it here with additional images and links to the artists' websites.

Rebecca Hutchinson, Connected Bloom
The Racine Art Museum has assembled a diverse collection of artists who explore the idea of “place” through feelings, thoughts, and impressions. In the first invitational show of its kind at the museum, nine artists were chosen whose work responds to place imaginatively rather than representationally.

This remarkable show surprised me and shook off a bias I didn’t know I had.  The exhibition subtitle, “Artists Explore Place,” brought to mind stereotypical scenes associated with “artist colonies” – lighthouses and lobster traps in Gloucester, MA; native dancers and animal skulls in Taos, NM; sailboats and farms in Door County. There is nothing like that in this show.

Mary Giles, Copper Crevice
Try this: close your eyes and think of a place to which you feel deeply connected. Let your mind drift away from what that place looks like and concentrate on how it feels to be there. What kind of art would that sensation generate?

The artists in this show seem to have been chosen because their work avoids representational specificity and embodies sensation in a nuanced way. The conceptual integrity of the work in the exhibit is matched too by a meticulous level of craft across diverse mediums. The mediums range from the ephemeral – paper, natural fibers and wax – to the enduring – copper, bronze and gold. The processes are all labor-intensive.

Jolynn Krysostek, Untitled
Jolynn Krystosek carves large but delicate medallions out of fragile wax. The forms suggest cameo pendants while the content references Victorian botanical illustrations. I found the sumptuous physicality of the wax and the technical facility with the unusual medium mesmerizing in all of them. However, I preferred the few in which curls of wax roll askew and out of the frame, which deflates the tromp l’oeil effect and calls attention to the fluidity of the wax itself. 

Sarah Hood, Birch Tree Ring
Sarah Hood fashions jewelry on which she recreates tiny fragments of the natural world. The meaning is ambiguous: is it a plea to respect the jewel-like preciousness of nature, a lament at how little there is left, or commentary about its commodification? While I enjoyed these pieces conceptually, I found the use of model railroad-scale artificial trees unconvincing and distracting. In earlier works, which I found on Hood's website, she incorporated real plants, leaves and seedpods. This seems more compelling.

Nicole Chesney, Betoken
The only painter among these artists is Nicole Chesney. Consistent with the rest, neither her approach to place nor her painting technique conform to tradition. Chesney layers oil paint, glass, and reflective aluminum to create luminous abstractions that stray so far from a specificity of place that they could be any place or no place. A horizontal line may be the horizon; her colors may be atmospheric; her work may be an updated version of color-field painting on a high-tech substrate. In any case the combination of deft painterly brushwork on glass over aluminum results in a mystical sense of space that would fit in just as well with an exhibition of Rothko and Olitski as it does here.

Beverly Penn, Topo I, detail
From a distance, Beverly Penn’s two large oval wall pieces have a decorative simplicity. The curvilinear effects reminded me of Louis Sullivan’s architectural ornamentation. Up close the detailed rendering of simple weeds seems almost miraculous. I wanted to reach over the velvet rope and touch it; that it was made of cast bronze was hard to believe. High relief and the museum’s lighting create shadows, which animate a sculpture that might have remained inert and ornamental.

Lauren Fensterstock, Third Nature 3
My favorite works were by Lauren Fensterstock. She manufactures shadow boxes that from a distance appear to be filled solid with some black earthy substances. Reflections on the glass fronts make the interiors visually impenetrable. But they are not minimalist forms a la Donald Judd, whose work they superficially resemble. Upon close inspection one discovers a very dark approximation of a kitchen-window terrarium or a science fair ant farm. Nothing actually grows in these faux terrariums. The deception is created from thin strips of cut and quilled black paper “planted” atop charcoal that’s been crushed to look like soil. The artist says that they represent “the earth becoming an expression of man’s view of nature rather than man’s true experience of nature.” If so, I found it especially symbolic that the dominant image as we view each box straight on is literally a reflection of ourselves. It takes an oblique viewpoint to make out the interior detail, as if nature has become such an alien experience that we can see it only with peripheral vision. Or perhaps they are apocalyptic reliquaries that contain the charred remains of a scorched earth, still held in hopeful reverence.

Olga de Amaral, Umbra 31, detail
In the end, for the artists in Field of Vision, place may be interpreted many ways, but is not somewhere that can be located via GPS.  Place is a state of mind, an emotion, or a relationship. The catalogue copy states, “These works are substantial without being directly representational.” They are substantial indeed.

There is still plenty of time to see Field of Vision: Artists Explore Place. It is on view through October 2.

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