Sunday, October 31, 2010

Just Seen and Dashed Off - Petah Coyne

Everything That Rises Must Converge, the title of a Flannery O'Connor short story is also the title of Petah Coyne's current exhibition at MASS MoCA. In the institution's typically large and far from pristine galleries Coyne's sculpture shines, rivets, and may make you feel uncomfortable. And that is good. You should feel that way.

I was first introduced to Petah Coyne in 1996 when i worked at the Corcoran Gallery of Art where Terrie Sultan organized a fantastic one-gallery show of Coyne's sculptures and i had the opportunity to do a studio visit with the artist. I have been following her work ever since and could not pass up this chance to see so much of her work in one place.

The MASS MoCA exhibition assembles sculptures and photographs of the last two decades. I will focus here exclusively on the sculpture. Some of Coyne's early pieces that are suspended from the ceiling are made of materials as varied as black sand, chicken-wire, steel, cotton muslin, and mud, just to name a few components. These large black forms vaguely suggest an anatomical heart, a whirl of movement, or the gravity of emotions respectively.

The thoroughly haunting Untitled #720 (Eguchi's Ghost) was inspired by the protagonist in a story by Yasunari Kawabata. Suspended in mid-air and roughly following the contours of a seated body, the sculpture appears animated, filled with a living presence, yet devoid of life at the same time. The medium corroborates the work's mystery - what looks like greysilver horsehair is in fact a shredded aluminum airstream trailer.

But the tour de force of this installation is a large gallery containing work inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. Like a swampy aviary, a multitude of taxidermied pheasants, peacocks, ducks, and one bobcat, are engulfed by black velvet and dark silkflowers dripping with black wax. In impossibly dramatic poses, they rip at our hearts and strain to inspire empathy, even if they are now only lifeless simulacra. These works state most forcefully, and admittedly not too subtly, what has activated Coyne's work over the decades. The danger of beauty. Its closeness to abjection, and the corollary play between repulsion and desire. She is in effect aiming to define her own sense of the sublime with all its associated terrors and joys.

Petah Coyne: Everything That Rises Must Converge is on view until April 11, 2011 - MASS MoCA, 1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA -

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Astrid Bowlby at Gallery Joe

Astrid Bowlby is currently showing work at Gallery Joe in Philadelphia. Light is up until November 13, 2010 -
Following is the brochure text that i wrote specifically about one series in the exhibition, A Certain Density.

Light - or dark

Darkness and light are generally taken to be opposites of each other - poetically speaking, light equals life and darkness equals death. But what if there are always specks of life and light amidst darkness, what if darkness is built on light rather than being in contrast to it? Instead of a simplistic concept of dueling extremes that nevertheless entail each other, Astrid Bowlby's work suggests a relationship of more metaphysical complexity.

Since 1999 she has been working on a series of ink drawings on 11 x 8 1/2 inch Bristol board entitled A Certain Density. The artist draws freehand up to nine layers of extremely fine straight lines of ink, vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, which may sound like an instruction for a Sol LeWitt drawing. However, although rigorous, Bowlby's drawings are enlivened by constant variance and the artist's physical touch. Her eye guides her hand at all times, making decisions all along and carefully placing lines to control density and darkness.

Depending on how many layers of lines she applies to a piece, visual interest can shift from line to overall effect and tone. The black lines define intricate shapes of white background, which range from stars and octagons in more airy works, to mere specks that are barely visible with the naked eye in the denser pieces. Random accumulations of ink appear and seem to demand from us to recognize shapes in them, clouds, fog, concretions seen in nature. Bowlby has in fact been inspired by certain natural light conditions such as moonlight breaking through tangles of
branches and leaves. So it is not surprising that the unevenness of tone in some of these works creates the illusion of openings and shimmering depths that suggest a geography of darkness. The drawings' rich patina of ink is further animated by an intricate texture of incised lines that invite the eye to follow after the artist's pen. It is also informative to note here that Bowlby is interested in physics, because some of light's main properties are frequency, intensity, and wavelength, all of which can be observed in the properties of the black lines.

The drawings of A Certain Density require a revision of expectations and adjustment of perception. In the process of layering lines, the works evolve from a black-on-white scheme to an allover black with a few white interruptions. The latter appear to be accentuating highlights but are in fact the background, thus calling into question the traditional figure-ground relationship. These drawings are not what they at first glance purport to be - black pieces of paper - but are white sheets that have been given obsessive attention and care. Dark is a version of light.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Other Writing

Here is a link to my review of the exhibition Photographing Maine: Ten Years Later currently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The image above is C.C. Church's Ondine, 2008 (archival pigment print, 17 x 11 in.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Just Seen and Dashed Off - Pepon Osorio

I have admired Pepón Osorio's socially engaged work for a long time so i was happy to see one of his community-specific installations at the Williams College Museum of Art today. The installation was first created and displayed in a former car dealership in North Adams and a whole group of volunteers helped create it. Drowned in a Glass of Water came out of the artist's engagement with two local families and condenses their histories and stories into a multi-media installation on a rotating stage that is divided into two spaces representing an interior and an exterior. The living room scene is overstuffed with furniture, tchotchkes, video screens and figures. They meld individual family stories with those of popular culture myths and cliches of happy homes. A pile up of toy police cars re-enacts a movie chase gone wrong, a whole collection of Hummel Figures sweetens the turmoil. The bodies of the three mannequins in this arrangement are covered with bandaids, symbolizing the fragility of the individual in such surroundings. The side representing the exterior thematizes nature and nurture, and sickness and health, mediated through video screens, mirrors, and artificiality.

Pepón Osorio: Drowned in a Glass of Water, Williams College Museum of Art, MA, until February 6, 2011 -

Monday, October 11, 2010

Other Writing

I recently wrote in my art current column in the Free Press about the Farnsworth's photography exhibition Emily Schiffer - Cheyenne River. Especially noteworthy is the installation's combination of words and black-and-white photographs of varying sizes.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Just Seen and Dashed Off - Karen MacDonald

Karen MacDonald's exhibition All This is nothing but paper and cardboard. The collages and constructions are spare, formally strong statements of interaction and relativity. The power of a dot - or many of them. Missing or added. The installation of individual elements on the large wall of Chase's is a collection of gems, each perfect in itself in its lack of preciousness. The power to see the potential in the ordinariness of found shapes and materials. Agnes Martin favorably comes to mind for some of the pieces on paper. It's humble but ambitious art.

Perimeter Gallery at Chase's Daily, Belfast
October 7-November 28