Sunday, April 28, 2013

Chazen Museum of Art: “Backyard Dilemmas”

The first thing I see upon entering the small gallery is what looks like an old fashioned concrete laundry tub raised off the floor on steel legs. As I near it, however, it resolves into a meticulously recreated basement constructed to scale of tiny concrete blocks. A precarious set of wooden stairs, lacking a handrail is set into one corner. A window well protrudes from the opposite corner. The basement space is otherwise vacant except for the pool of water surrounding an off-center floor drain.

Water in the basement! Having recently endured a flooded basement myself, the sculpture struck a nerve. Actual water is bubbling gently from the minute floor drain, propelled by a small pump hidden underneath the sculpture. The silent seeping of water, a subtle but compelling gesture, is characteristic of the understated power of Emily Belknap’s art works.

The piece is part of an MFA thesis exhibit entitled Backyard Dilemmas: Constructed Landscapes by Emily Belknap. It is on display in the Oscar F. and Louise Greiner Mayer Gallery of the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of WisconsinMadison.

A quick survey of the gallery reveals a collection of equally meticulous sculptures (as well as two drawings) that combine the ultra-realism of scale model miniatures with an abstract sensibility. The fences that surround each “property” are all that represent an entire neighborhood. Gone are the houses, streets, sidewalks, lawns, and people that would animate the neighborhood and create of it a community.

Famous lines about “good fences make good neighbors” from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” briefly come to mind. But these carefully crafted fences are oriented so that they project out from the vertical wall. Although the realism is indisputable, on another level they suggest abstract constructivism—to me at least. This duality is just one way that Belknap creates tension. In a statement on the wall text panel, Belknap says, “The decision to fence a backyard is more than an aesthetic choice; it implies anxiety, a need to contain and regulate.”

On the opposite wall of the gallery is an enormous field of miniature cornstalks; its vertical axis shifted perpendicular to the wall surface, as with the fences. Each of what looks like thousands of individual cornstalks has been created by hand from twisted strips of paper. The resulting “field” simultaneously evokes an actual corn crop ready to harvest and, because it is contained within a rigorous rectangle, mirrors the grid of fences across the way.

This dialectic between straightforward realism and conceptual abstraction is constant in Belknap’s work. Emotionally, I find myself teetering between a wondrous admiration of the breathtaking technical proficiency required to create these sculptures and darker moods conjured by the artist’s vision of our own “constructed landscapes.”

For those who read my Urban Wilderness blog as well as Arts Without Borders it will come as no surprise that I am a fan of paradox. Belknap serves it up with nearly every piece. At the center of the gallery, symbolically as well as literally, is a sculpture entitled “Parking Lot.” A lone and leafless tree stands at the center of the piece. The ambiguous metaphor could be interpreted as a hopeful interjection of life into the sterile space or as the destructive constraints we’ve placed on nature by constructing such places.

courtesy Emily Belknap
In an unlighted corner of the gallery is another tabletop sculpture entitled, “Vacant Lot.” The titles are mostly descriptive. You get the picture. A vacant lot with cracked pavement is surrounded by rusting chain link fence. A few desultory brown weeds along the fence are the only suggestion of life. There is a (tiny) padlock on the only gate, but the fence has been torn open in one corner. A miniature streetlight glows faintly in another corner. The small-scale rendition of cyclone fencing alone is worth visiting this exhibit. Belknap twists each strand of wire individually and assembles each length of fence on a “loom” that she has devised for the purpose.

My favorite piece is the only one that is built to human scale. It was initially less attractive, perhaps for that very reason. At first I don’t even notice the end of a picnic table sticking out of the end wall of the gallery. It seems ordinary in the context of the extraordinary miniatures. Oddly enough, it is when I have my back to it that it becomes noticeable. I am reading the artist statement when I hear a brief, sharp thumping sound. After a few moments it repeats: thump, thump. I turn and observe a brown cardboard box, like a shoebox, on top of the “picnic table.” I walk over to it and see that a series of crude holes have been punched in the top of the box, as if someone were trying to contain a living thing inside it. Thump, thump. The top of the box rattles visibly with the noise. It is easy to imagine a bird inside raising its wings, trying to escape. This sculpture is more suggestively, and again paradoxically, titled: “Rescue.”

Belknap received a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She is the winner of the 2013 Chazen Prize, which is awarded to an Outstanding MFA Student. Her exhibit, Backyard Dilemmas: Constructed Landscapes by Emily Belknap, was curated by Bartholomew Ryan, assistant curator in the visual arts department at the Walker Art Center. The exhibit is on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through May 12, 2013.

If you live in the Milwaukee area and want a taste of Belknap's work, she is included in a group show called "Chasing Horizons" that opens at Villa Terrace this Friday, May 3. Opening is 6-8 pm.

Except as noted, the images are mine, taken in the dimly lit gallery with my point and shoot camera. To see more (and better) images of Emily’s work, go to her website.

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