Sunday, July 17, 2016

Buns, Bugs, Nubbins and “What they thought” in Normal, IL

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” William Shakespeare

That famous quote from Hamlet is apropos to this review of art for at least two reasons. First, it was in fact to see a performance of Hamlet that I found myself in Bloomington/Normal, Illinois this past weekend. There is an annual summer Shakespeare festival (going on 40 years, they said) and several members of the Milwaukee Rep were acting in their performance of Hamlet, including the unconventional choice of a female title character played by Deborah Staples.

The performance was wonderful and wickedly funny. Staples brought to Hamlet’s character a kind of youthful, even adolescent energy and fragility, which shifted some interpretations of his temperament, words and actions. (Read a review in today’s Mke Journal/Sentinel.) All well and good, at least my thinking makes it so. But what about the art?

My wife and I went with friends to Bloomington/Normal where we were fortunate enough not only to stay with family but also to have a guided tour of art offerings in the twin cities. It was a great surprise and delight to find an exhibit of Claire Ashley’s work at the ISU University Galleries in Normal. Ashley came to my attention (in a big way) when I was artist in residence at the Lynden Sculpture Garden last year. As a visiting artist, Ashley was a huge hit with her enormous and interactive inflatable sculpture that visitors were able to enter and move around the grounds. (See my blog post about it.)

The constraints of the gallery setting made her work less interactive but no less marvelous or enormous. In fact, her wildly colored, bloated forms were squeezed into what otherwise would have seemed like large spaces making them seem cramped, like Alice after taking a bite of cake and growing large.

The playfulness of the work is accentuated in their titles, which run from goofy (“Hunnybunny”) through descriptive (“Hangin’ Drape”) to suggestive (“Worms,” “Suckers,” or “Rump.”) The show title itself is equal parts bawdy and enigmatic: “Cawt, Taut, Hot … Not.”

This untitled, site specific installation made out of colored and distressed foamcore, along with a selection of her more characteristic pillow-shaped and spray-painted forms in plaster became part of the gallery wall.

A separate, smaller gallery contained (barely) two related forms with glowing paint eerily illuminated with black lighting. Ashley describes her work as “cartoony organisms referencing motherhood and eroticism.” Drawing on her training in psychology, my wife had another interpretation. She saw the blobby, organic forms as both invasive and banal like petty everyday anxieties that have grown out of control and can no longer be ignored.

Ashley shared the gallery spaces with another artist, Rob Swainston. The title of his show, “We thought they thought what we thought, but they didn’t,” was what reminded me of the Hamlet quote.

Although two-dimensional prints, Swainston’s work was no less monumental than Ashley’s. And if they were therefore less claustrophobic they made up for it with a barely decipherable density of dark, moody imagery with veiled references to something apocalyptic.

Measuring a full 16 feet tall, the largest reached from floor to ceiling, evoking Chinese scrolls. Most involved complex, multilayered and off-register woodblock printing. Some layered the woodblock-printed images over digital, inkjet-printed ones, an intriguing and surprisingly harmonious combination of ancient and contemporary technologies.

Less successful, I thought was an installation called “Shingles” that wrapped around the corner of one of the galleries. But clearly, it must have been my thinking that made it so. Hamlet also said, “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

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