Sensuous Memento @ the River House Arts

Mori Megan Biddle, Amber Cowan, Jessica Jane Julius, & Sharyn O’Mara – Hush.ex Exhibition at River House Arts, Toledo, Ohio

There are exciting things happening at the Toledo Art Museum, the University of Toledo, and the gestating organization that will soon be on everyone’s radar, Contemporary Art Toledo, this September. Contemporary Art Toledo, the brainchild of Brian Carpenter (lecturer and gallery director at the University of Toledo) and Paula Baldoni (director of River House Arts Space) is currently based in the gorgeous River House Arts Gallery in downtown Toledo. Hush.ex features the work of four artists whose common thread begins with the historically and regionally loaded medium of glass.

installation-shot-hush-ex

River House Arts, Hush-ex, Installation, All Images Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

Once upon a time, glass production was a massive industry in Toledo. Its status as a serious craft has passed out of our cultural consciousness, much as other craft-oriented industries that once anchored Midwestern economies have shifted locus or become altogether obsolete. Toledo, however, has preserved its status as “The Glass City” through a symbiotic relationship between industry, education, and fine art that has guided glass craft through industrial decline, out of factories and into studios, ultimately accumulating an incredible collection of glass art (initially through the patronage of Edward Drummond and Florence Scott Libbey, founders of both Owens Corning Glass Manufacturing and the Toledo Museum).

The artists of Hush.ex (all of whom teach in the Glass Program at Tyler School of Art, Temple University) engage with the historicity and mundanity of this medium that permeates our lives at almost every moment without making its presence felt. The work illuminates that very mundanity, and uses it to begin a dialog about the things we touch, use, and interact with daily, and how quietly loaded with history, both emotional and indexical, this slippery, medium-bridging material is.

Glass is a substance that we live with and touch frequently as part of our daily life. We open windows, handle drinking glasses and plates, navigate touchscreens. We know what glass feels like. And, if you’ve ever been a child surreptitiously handling a weighty, faceted objet de art or a precious piece of porcelain, you know that glass feels good. It’s a crafted substance that invites direct interaction in every way. It’s almost an extension of our bodies, and it’s certainly played a major role, historically, in preserving our experiences in sensuous, precious, yet powerful cartouches. The artists featured in Hush.ex tap directly into that sensuous, indexical role glass possesses (to a maddening degree- I’ve never felt a stronger desire to touch works of art in an exhibition).

Amber Cowan’s turgid glass sculptures channel both mid-century gewgaws and the horror vacui principle of nature to craft strangely familiar, subversively scaled vessels and wall pieces that burst with an uncanny appropriation of organic growth and mind-numbing decorative beauty. Her works bear such titles as “Wedding Compote with Thorny Vine,” and “Candle Stick.”

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Amber Cowan, Rosette Milk & Ivory flame worked pressed & sheet glass, mixed-media

The works of Jessica Jane Julius dialog with mundane objects of a very different order- the ephemeral static and digital flickerings that glass bears into our environment via television and smartphone screens. The buzzy surfaces and odd static/dynamic quality of her installations speak to the mercurial loyalties of glass, as an almost magical medium between our reality and pure, abstracted information.

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Jessica Jane Julius, Extruded hot pulled & kiln cast glass, metal – 2016

The theme of glass as a vessel for memory brought uncannily into real space is most directly engaged by Sharyn O’Mara, whose pressed glass burnout drawings most directly reference Nineteenth Century memento mori keepsakes. Such objects were meant to preserve a physical trace of a deceased loved one available for viewing through impenetrable glass. Through an intense process of compressing objects between panes of glass and firing them into carbonized fossils, O’Amara has preserved, among other keepsakes, tufts of hair from beloved dogs that caramelize in their pressed glass coffins into delicate, snowflake-like strata of tangled tendrils that reference lovely, closely observed charcoal drawings.

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Sharyn Omara, Botanical 4-carbon burnout drawing on glass, 2016

Megan Biddle’s sculptures also invoke drawing, taken off the wall into three dimensional collisions of line and material. Again, there is a reference to preservation and enclosure here- her home appliance scaled sculpture “Converge” occupies a corner of the gallery like an old-timey television set, transmitting a quiet meditation on converging, geometric lines rather than moving bites of information.

The overarching theme of preservation of historical, beloved objects and memories within this medium that feels simultaneously earthy and ephemeral, tactile and fragile, inviting and forbidding to touch.

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Jessica Jane Julius, Static puddle hot pulled & kiln fused glass, 2016

Hush.ex coalesces into an incredible synesthesia of memory, digital ephemera, and physical preservation all encompassed, like Snow White, in a sensual and impenetrable glass coffin. There’s much potential for touchstones of communication in this medium that feels simultaneously earthy and ephemeral, tactile and fragile, inviting and forbidding to touch.

It’s the rare medium that straddles craft, fine art, and daily life on such equal footing. Hush.ex both awakens the viewer to sensual beauty, and stands as a reminder that such beauty is all around, within grasp, at all times.

Hush.ex is on view at River House Arts in Toledo, Ohio, September 15 through October 31, 2016

River House Arts

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” @ University of Michigan Museum of Art

Treasures from the Collection of Nesta and Walter Spink at The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Installation shot Connoisseurs Legacy 2016

Installation – Connoisseurs Legacy 2016 All images Courtesy of the Michigan Museum of Art

“Our bodies love metaphors because they join our bodies to our soul rather than abandoning them to a soulless state. The ancient alchemists called this body-soul state “the subtle body.” They believed that the deeper we go into “the subtle body,” the greater the soul treasures it contains.”    -Marion Woodman, from The Maiden King

In a recent review, I speculated that museums and galleries have become depositories for objects we currently don’t know what to do with- that seem to have lost their vital place in culture-building. “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy,” a delicately curated selection of works from the private collection of Nesta and Walter Spink, provides a stark counterpoint to that idea- it speaks of the vital place works of art still have in the private lives of people who shape, and are shaped by, the lives of these works in the outer world.

The Spinks have been collecting works of art since the 1950’s, the early days of their long marriage and the gestation period of their respective paths of scholarship. Nesta specialized in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century prints and drawings, and would become one of America’s foremost experts on James McNeill Whistler, compiling, during her years as curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the most comprehensive catalog raisonne of Whistler’s prints ever written. Walter took as his subject the vast Buddhist shrine and monastery at Ajanta, India, and continues to advance his radical theory of the site’s history and development in an ongoing series of books about the caves. At age eighty-eight, he still spends several months a year in Ajanta.

The Spink’s collection is important, because it offers a unique opportunity to view great works of art from vastly different time periods, cultures and traditions side by side in one gallery. The collection, consisting mainly of works on paper from various traditions, punctuated by gems of religious sculpture, lovingly wrought textiles and charming decorative objects, testifies powerfully to the role graphic art (printmaking, illustration, stylized genre painting) plays across all cultures as a distillation of our human story into a universal, uniformly legible narrative.

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Milkmaid Manika Offering Curds to Jagannatha and Balabhadra on Horses Composed of Human Figures, India, Orissa, Puri School early 20th Century, opaque watercolor and lacquer on cot

The artists represented, from anonymous Mughal miniature painters and regional Indian folk artists to J. M. Whistler to Paul Klee and Andy Warhol, are all, “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” clarifies, driven by the same passion- to translate lived experience into a visual language that brings the body a bit closer to the soul. This, according to the psychologist Marion Woodman, is the purpose of metaphor- literally a “carrying over” of tangible life from this plane onto the subtler plane of our interior selves. Seen in this context, the diverse work in “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” sheds linear chronology, aesthetic movements, and regional traditions and unites in breath-taking waves of visual metaphor- allegorical dreams brought into the light.

Image 2 Hans Sebold Beham Achilles and Hector Engraving on laid paper 1510-30

Hans Sebold Beham Achilles and Hector Engraving on laid paper 1510-30

One of my favorite things about graphic art is its ability to both describe and subvert space- the void we move through and fill with our objects and ideas. The line that weaves through all the work in “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy,” the line that describes first and foremost, defines each century and tradition even as it unifies them. One gets the dynamic, jazzed-up line of the Twentieth Century as transcribed by Max Ernst and Paul Klee a hair before it leaps back into foursquare reality and forms a can of Campbell’s soup, appropriated as Art and autographed by Andy Warhol.

Image 3 Paul Klee Drawing for a Drama of Disunion, ink on paper, 1921

Paul Klee Drawing for a Drama of Disunion, ink on paper, 1921

Reel this line backward in time, and it grows, across America, Europe and Asia, more disciplined, hushed, and devoted to the sublime, describing fragments of statuary and architecture from Ancient Rome in two brilliantly mind-bending etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi that collapse space into an orderly grid of venerable objects floating on Enlightenment illumination. Leap across the gallery to a group of contemporary Mughal miniature paintings, and the same hushed veneration is there- describing the indescribable in a different way. The unearthly jewel tones and dream-like minglings of people and animals- many-armed deities astride tigers and giant pigeons- have the same spiritual devotion to beauty as their French and Italian comrades.

Image 4 Page from an Indian zodiac manuscript, Figure Mounted on a Tiger, possibly Saturn, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur school circa 1840, ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Page from an Indian zodiac manuscript, Figure Mounted on a Tiger, possibly Saturn, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur school circa 1840, ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper

The line meanders and condenses from the Warhol soup can back to a taut, potent carving of Christ crucified and back again to sensuous Jain statuary which draws on traditional Hindu sculpture to capture the ecstasy of spiritual union.

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” is also important because it exemplifies collecting for the best possible reasons. The works of art on display reflect the insight of the individuals who fell in love with each piece and fitted it in with the rest without an agenda, a rigid vision, or focus on material gain. It’s a reminder, as well, of the vital contribution private curation makes to the Humanities- Nesta and Walter understand the ensoulling power of these objects, and the instruction they can offer us about ourselves and our cultural inheritance. “The Connoisseurs’ Legacy” suggests a continuous loop of visual language that cross-pollinates and subtly alters itself and its context with each change in perspective, each newly discovered visual rhyme that spans continents. This privately curated collection highlights the similarities, more than the differences, between works we are trained to view as vastly different from one another.

“The Connoisseurs’ Legacy: The Collection of Nesta and Walter Spink” is on view at The University of Michigan Museum of Art from June 18 through September 25, 2016.

University of Michigan Art Museum

Vagner Whitehead @ Cass Cafe

Where Allegory Meets Autobiography – Vagner M. Whitehead’s “Writings on the Wall” at Cass Café, Detroit, Michigan

Vagner Whitehead Installation shot

Vagner Whitehead Installation shot, Image Courtesy of Clara DeGalan

“Writings on the Wall,” Vagner Whitehead’s farewell solo exhibition currently on view at Cass Café (he’s sadly leaving us to take a job in Texas, he’ll be missed on the gallery circuit and at Infinite Mile Detroit, where Whitehead and I were colleagues) provides an interesting counterpoint to the ideas I’ve been juggling lately about identity-based work. Generally speaking, I find it problematic. My definition of the genre ropes in any work that takes as its subject an examination, unpacking, or sounding board of the earthly presence of the maker herself- her body, her biography, her socio-economic place, her sexual orientation, any and all factors that combine to make her who she is. Such work carries the risk of lapsing into self-examination that effectively shuts the door to any possibility for true communication or transcendence. The presence of casual self-portraits and other Snapchat-worthy visual flashes in Whitehead’s work quickly establishes as its subject an exploration of the artist’s identity. Whitehead avoids the drab self-examination so common to this type of work, however, through an intriguing mixture of cross-pollinating media, differing modes of visual communication, and a beautiful, over-arching theme of movement- manifested specifically in flight- that opens up what so often presents as a sealed conversation between the artist and her ego.

Image 1 Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Laser etching collage and acrylic on panel

Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Laser etching collage and acrylic on panel

Image 2 Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Detail

Vagner Whitehead Computing Clouds 2015 Detail

“Writings on the Wall” somehow places its maker both center and off-center through a multi-paneled, open-ended meditation on the rhymes that ring between migration, barriers in communication, and the bridging of these distances by any means necessary- via text (presented in collaged leaves from found books) transcriptions of sign language delivered in drawings of hand movements, gorgeous, juxtaposed studies of airplanes and birds, scaled-up prints of typeface lettering, and, amid the cacophony of rote communication, brief moments of non-verbal respite that read as breaks in a migratory journey- delicate graphite studies of intimate moments of iPhone-captured eye contact with the artist himself, or with lovers on languid, bed-bound mornings.

Image 3 Vagner Whitehead Besame Mucho Oz 2012 Acrylic and Inkjet transfer on canvas Detail

Vagner Whitehead Besame Mucho Oz 2012 Acrylic and Inkjet transfer on canvas Detail

Mylar overlays wreath milky glazes over rapid-fire selfies, combining with their carefully considered graphite rendering to elevate them into sacred territory. One gets the impression that the wonder with which Whitehead approaches these mundane likenesses is, somehow, not self-regarding, but universal- that it carries a subtle lesson in the true purpose such images carry in popular culture. Whitehead balances his busy, content-loaded transcriptions of movement with these contemplative, humble moments of stillness (so difficult to grasp these days) that carefully articulate, in dissonantly traditional media, the nearest we can possibly come to identity in a world with a constantly shifting, evolving ground that threatens to swallow us up if we don’t document every moment of quiet autonomy we can. Whitehead’s work in “Writings on the Wall” captures, via quaintly allegorical images and materials, the overwhelming speed with which we must move through an increasingly global, competitive art world, spanning distances similar to those a migratory bird must cover in order to survive. The same distances which technology- airplanes, printed text, smart phones- can cover instantly and effortlessly. The part of us that is still struggling to cross oceans, using only our bodies and what we can articulate with our hands and our brief, snatched experiences of true connection, is one key to the ideal execution of identity-based work. This work can tell us something about how, and why, we build visual narratives around ourselves as we navigate contemporary life.

Image 4 Vagner Whitehead Blind Path 2014-15 Laser etching acrylic and oil on panel

Vagner Whitehead Blind Path 2014-15 Laser etching acrylic and oil on pan

 “Writings on the Wall” is on view at Cass Café in Detroit, MI July 9 through September 17, 2016.  Cass Cafe

 

John Corbin @ Susanne Hilberry Gallery

 John Corbin’s exhibition: Level and Plumb

“In the last several years the Monarch’s (butterflies) population has decreased for some known (logging in Mexico) and some unknown reasons. It might be that the Monarch has been rendered obsolete. I haven’t found the app that replaced it yet.”  – John Corbin, Some Thoughts about My Work and Becoming Obsolete

John Corbin’s solo exhibition Level and Plumb, which opened at Susanne Hilberry Gallery on June 10, is a deconstructed, re-assembled encyclopedia of romantic obsolescence. The visually discordant pairings of Corbin’s sculptures, composed of found clocks and carpenter’s levels, and his collages of dissected atlas maps, instantly provoke curiosity and invite closer analysis. These parallel bodies of work gradually break down into a bizarre, insightful history of the chronology of both time and space. The objects Corbin uses to explore this history- clocks, carpenter’s levels, printed maps, and globe-trotting migrant birds and butterflies- eulogize the laborious, beautiful process of gaining understanding of the workings of the universe through trial and error, meticulous inch-by-inch progress, and miraculous leaps of logic.

Corbin installation shot

John Corbin, Installation shot – All images courtesy of Angela Pham and Susanne Hilberry

Corbin’s deconstructed map collages, both intimately and massively scaled, are beautiful objects in and of themselves- the honeycomb-like patterns and delicate tonal grades that deconstruct atlas maps into swirling, undulating atmospheric studies traversed by iconic migratory creatures- cranes, monarch butterflies- speak both to the original function of these objects- to cast sublime amounts of space into understandable terms for people- and to their total functional obsolescence now- an abundant natural resource for repurposing into studio practice.

Image 2 Two if by Sea 2012-16 Acrylic Map collage 68in x 88in

John Corbin, Two if by Sea, 2012-16 Acrylic Map collage – 68in x 88in

The same feeling comes through in Corbin’s sculpture- the assemblages of levels and clocks begin to communicate their quaint insistence on the perfect right angle, the perfect orb, hard-wired to the wall, veiled in white. They’re no longer tactile tools, but studies in contemplation of the universal truths that they are indexical to.

 3 Spirit Level III 2016 Levels and Hourglasses 11.5in x 20in x 1 and one quarter inch

John Corbin, 3 Spirit Level III 2016 Levels and Hourglasses 11.5in x 20in x 1 and one quarter inch

One word that comes repeatedly to mind while exploring Corbin’s show is ephemera. The masses of printed information and measuring, calibrating objects that, not so long ago, were as essential to us as our thumbs. As one delves deeper into Level and Plumb, the realization gradually dawns that the source materials that make up all of the works in the show bear an uncannily simultaneous familiarity and distance. Where have these tactile measuring tools- clocks, levels, puzzles, maps- disappeared to? When did they leave us? Why are they simply no longer a part of our lives? Seen in this light, Corbin’s sculptures and collages begin to read like effigies, and in his statement for Level and Plumb he places the blame for the vanishing of these miraculous objects squarely upon Apple Inc. The huge scale of this leap- timepieces, maps, measuring tools, means of communication, means of documentation, all pouring into one handheld electronic device, bears the same sublime quality as a bound atlas that lays the whole world out before your eyes. It captures the frisson that accompanied one’s first realization that a clock that measured the hours in a day was also documenting the movements of the sun and stars. The compression and deconstruction Corbin subjects his source materials to echoes, as well, the bizarre compression of millennia of human development into ever smaller and more disposable projections of our most inspired leaps of understanding. There’s a tragedy whispering alongside the uncanniness of Corbin’s work- is it not a little sad that these tools, once so essential to our navigation of our world, now take up residence in the stillness of gallery space, as functionally ambiguous to culture as any other work of fine art?

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John Corbin, Installation image

Are the gallery and the museum now the storehouses for the dictation from the stars that once sparked our highest aspirations that we’re not sure what to do with anymore? What is the relationship of those aspirations to the objects we hold in our hands today? Though conspicuously absent visually, the iPhone is a constant, silent presence in Level and Plumb, appearing in ironic relief in your own hands every few seconds to check the time or take a picture, insisting on its appropriation of the delicate structures of time and space that Corbin’s materials used to hold the keys to. Level and Plumb is an important, and timely show, in the way it quietly and beautifully reveals the evolution (or possibly devolution) of human mastery of the discernable world to us. The ephemeral tools we used to rely on to gauge the world around us may seem unwieldy and quaint now, but Corbin’s reworking of them remind us that they were beautiful. They sang of the universe. And, even removed from practical use and deconstructed, they still carry insights that make the most user-friendly smartphone suddenly feel blunter than a flint hand-axe.

Level and Plumb is on display at Susanne Hilberry Gallery June 10 through August 6, 2016.

 

Simone DeSousa @ Holding House

Architecture of the Soul in a Serendipitous Space

Holding House, an art/work space two years in the making that began engaging with art and community in Southwest Detroit in 2013, has been fashioned, roots up, from a gutted storefront (shuttered in 1978 and not re-inhabited until co-directors Andrea Eckert and Adrienne Dunkerley took it on) into a magnificent, light-filled space that still retains choice features of its former identity. Its roomy, raw-edged gallery is the absolute perfect setting for Simone DeSousa’s new solo exhibition, “Calculating with Absence.”

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Simone DeSousa, Installation image, “Calculating with Absence (The Jewel in the Lake)” Wall Acrylic on Panel, 2016 Images – Courtesy of Clara DeGalan, Simone DeSousa, and Eric Wheeler

 “Calculating with Absence” is installed, and should be viewed, from the roots up. The denser, slightly older works installed in Holding House’s lower level comprise a sort of prima materia which bursts, on the gallery’s main floor, into a constellation of airier, more succinct works that take the viewer on a meditative journey through space, silence, and the evocative, multivalent power of the gesture which stands alone.

Image 1 The_Temple_of_Bliss_and_Emptiness_1_and_2_2016 Acrylic on Panel

Simone DeSousa, “Calculating with Absence (The Temple of Bliss and Emptiness 1 and 2)”, Acrylic on Panel, 2016

DeSousa’s early career in architecture is evident in her work- abstract and sharply minimal as it can be, it speaks in the silent, echoing language of space. The more built-up works read like cityscapes, layers of geometric forms and linear gestures crowding the picture plane, built up with industrial surface texture- swirls of resin and caulk. Some of those same textures appear in the quieter works, where they are accompanied by the barest of architectural scribbles, or simply given an unconventional format for a setting- DeSousa’s panels bend, nick off at corners, elongate, and spread along the gallery walls more like evolving visual conversations than self-enclosed paintings.

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Simone DeSousa,“Calculating with Absence (The Secret Path)” Wall , Acrylic on Panel, 2016

“Calculating with Absence (The Secret Path)” Wall

The power of the gesture is uniquely engaged in this format. As immediate as the forms in these paintings feel, their surroundings are carefully considered and have great bearing on how each gesture reads, and moves out into its surrounding space. The cohabitation of DeSousa’s textural swaths with delicate architectural elements suggest both massive scale and confusing layers of space.

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Simone DeSousa, “Calculating with Absence (Base, Path, and Fruit)”, Acrylic on Panel, 2016

Seen as forms within pictures, the gestures rupture the quiet recession of space suggested by the drawing, like a sudden realization can rupture a settled sense of reality- conversely, seen in the context of the gallery space, the gestures project from their oddly shaped receptacles to create visual rhymes and dialogs with the surrounding architecture itself. Here is the serendipity of the show’s setting- the exposed beams and raw, plastered edges of Holding House’s interior draws DeSousa’s one-shot gestures out of their pictorial settings, and sets in motion a parallel, but separate dialog with actual space, fostered by the ever-finessing nontraditional formats on which she works. In “Calculating with Absence,” DeSousa has accomplished something very special and rare- two dimensional works that simultaneously dialog with, about, and into three dimensional space while maintaining their own autonomy as beautiful, sharply composed paintings. As a long-time fan of her curatorial prowess at Simone DeSousa Gallery (formerly Re:View Contemporary) in Midtown, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that DeSousa brings as much clarity and power of vision to her studio practice. I sincerely hope we get to see more of this side of DeSousa’s practice in the future.

“Calculating with Absence” is on display at Holding House through June 10, 2016.