Art Review: WarFront/HomeFront at the Kent County Arts Council Gallery

Silhouetted against a pinkish-red background, several doves perch on a rifle held high by a soldier’s arm. This poignant image is just one of many in “WarFront/HomeFront, Through the Eyes of Our Military” on view through December 3 at Kent County Arts Council. After languishing for years, the former Town Arts Building is open again and hosting a show that vividly celebrates the healing power of art.

Whether the glowing red background connotes blood and fiery violence or the radiant pink blush of sunrise, hope and love is not clear, and the tension behind this riddle tells the terrible truth that while war is waged to bring peace, peace never lasts.

“Birds over Peace,” Patrick Sargent (U. S. Air Force), screen-print on paper made from Walter Reed hospital scrubs, 13 ½ x 6 ½ inches, 2015

Created by Patrick Sargent, an Air Force veteran, at a workshop at Walter Reed National Military Center, “Birds over Peace” was screen-printed on paper made from worn-out scrubs from the hospital. Many of the show’s works were created in similar workshops, and many use handmade paper pulped from military uniforms by recovering soldiers in a powerful metaphor of transformation paralleling the soldiers’ transformative healing through making art.

“WarFront/HomeFront” is a heart-rending, provocative and soulfully beautiful exhibit drawn from the 600 works in the ART/ifacts Collection of The Arts & The Military, a grassroots organization that actively engages wounded veterans in the arts. They are joined by drawings and paintings of wounded soldiers from the Joe Bonham Project by artists from the Society of Illustrators and the International Society of War Artists.

Little boys love to play with toy soldiers, but the melted and mutilated toy soldiers scattered across Malachi Muncy’s “To Play Army” will never be played with again. The words scrawled across the paper pulp painting where they are imbedded blurt out a painful message that recurs throughout this show, “I Didn’t Know What It Meant To Play Army.”

“To Play Army,” Malachi Muncy (U. S. Army), pulp panting and ink with toy Army men embedded in paper made from pulped military uniforms, 11 x 17 inches, 2013

Military service was romanticized when Muncy was growing up as an Army brat, and like many young people with limited prospects, whether white, black, Latino or Native American, he chose the military as a way to obtain training and education. After two deployments to Iraq and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, he has turned to art, as well as other therapies, for healing.

Art engages experience on many levels. The viscous feeling of clay between the fingers and the sweep of an arm brushing color across a piece of paper are strongly physical. The artworks these actions create stimulate both eyes and brain in a process that probes memory and belief, digesting experience and feeling in order to work toward understanding.

Chosen by Guest Curator Tara Tappert, Executive Director of The Arts & The Military, and KCAC Co-Executive Director John Schratwieser, the exhibit includes paintings, drawings, ceramics, poetry, found object art, and many handmade paper works created from old uniforms. It’s a show in which art has a double mission, serving both as a therapeutic process and as a compelling advocacy tool teaching visitors about the inward experiences of individuals in the military.

It’s in some of the Joe Bonham Project drawings that personal stories come to life with intensely affecting strength. Civilian illustrator Jeffery Fisher’s watercolor “A Fitful Sleep” is a powerful image of a wounded soldier, arm bandaged, sheets pulled into sweeping diagonals, grimacing face turned away. The sense of aloneness in his nightmarish physical and mental pain is palpable.

“A Fitful Sleep,” Jeffrey Fisher (Civilian), watercolor and graphite on paper, 27 ½ x 18 inches, 2012

Through the process of creating, these wounded soldiers are able to discover ways to examine and express their wartime experiences in a safe and nourishing atmosphere. In one of the exhibit’s most inspired works, visitors may do the same. Across the gallery’s double windows hang several pairs of combat boots. These regulation boots have obviously been worn—despite the mandatory spit shine, they are scuffed and creased, each by an individual soldier. (No one wears a pair of boots in the same way as anyone else, as Van Gogh’s paintings attest.) Visitors are invited to write wishes, prayers or stories on paper provided and put them into the boots. Just a few days into the show, they were already brimming with handwritten notes which, at the end of the show, will be added to those collected from previous exhibits of the ART/ifacts Collection.

Interaction is crucial to the process of art, as it is to the process of healing. Wounded veterans worked together to pulp old uniforms into paper, to pose for drawings, and to organize workshops. It took great courage for them to open up through art to work on their own healing, and it takes courage to experience this show, but do it. You’ll be richer for the experience.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Art Review: Review: Julie Wills at the Kohl by Mary McCoy

Wishes are weightless, ephemeral things, however urgent and heartfelt. We know perfectly well that they won’t get us anywhere, yet we still make a wish when we blow out our birthday candles or see the first star come out at night. In her exhibit, “Wishes Are Horses,” on view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through October 22, Julie Wills deftly shifts the gloomy phrase “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” to hopefulness with a simple change of verb.

Julie Wills, “Untitled (for Felix González-Torres and all other lovers),” driftwood, found coins & domestic debris, party lights, birthday candles, matchsticks, ribbon, cloth, tobacco & twine on linen-covered supports, 54″ x 77″ x 11

The first thing you see at the exhibit’s entrance is a magical horse made of a piece of driftwood heaped with tobacco bundles and a string of lights called “Untitled (for Felix González-Torres and all other lovers).” Burnt matches and birthday candles provisionally stand in for its ears and mane along with a few coins and washers hammered into the weathered wood. It’s a kind of roundup of talismans ranging from ancient Greek to Native American, underscored by the words “wishing on every thing in sight” etched onto some of the lighted bulbs.

This sympathetic nod to the irrational urge to wish sets the stage for a deeply personal look at human yearnings so tender that we tend to keep them secret and unspoken. Like many artists before her, including González-Torres with his bare light bulbs evoking festivity, inspiration, revelation and impermanence, Wills uses the symbolic and associative power of found objects to summon up sensations and snippets of memory. Again and again, her choices of basic, no-frills materials familiar from earliest childhood trigger curiosity and rouse thoughts of how we might see things a little differently.

Julie Wills, “Zodiac (book of hours),” sandpaper and pencil on Stonehenge drawing paper, 22″ x 22″glacial pace of the changes we desire most dearly

Mounted on an old shipping palette spray-painted black, a spherical lightbulb stands in for the moon and a severed bird’s wing calls freedom and flight to mind. Wills often layers bits of text into her works, and around the bulb are a few words about the act of soaring. A feeling of beauty and uplift arises but it’s an odd sensation given that it’s stirred by a slightly disheveled bit of feathers and bone and a lightbulb unabashedly trailing its power cord. How the flagrant homeliness of this sculpture creates such magic is a puzzle, not unlike a Zen koan, and it has the same illogical effect of opening a previously unknown part of one’s mind.

Many of the show’s works are about the stars and how we like to gaze at these bright pinpricks hovering in the infinite sky and how we like to wish on them. The night sky is a place of dreaming, of possibilities, of the ancient stories playing out with the seasonal shifting of the stars overhead. But Wills brings it down to earth in funny, childlike ways. The dark, circular skies flecked with tiny stars appearing throughout the exhibit turn out, on closer inspection, to be nothing but worn black sandpaper. It has a gritty texture. It’s very physical. It’s nothing like the untouchable, unreachable midnight sky.

Magical thinking is what’s behind this show, but it’s very self-aware magical thinking. Wills is not concerned with seducing the eye with beautiful or inspiring images but with conjuring understanding from bits of the mundane world we inhabit day after day. Musing on these works, the feeling arises that the mechanisms of understanding life derive from living itself but that it takes a very pointed awareness to sort them out.

Do wishes work? Wills’s optimism about the answer shows in a horizontal row of lightbulbs etched with the words “The world tells me I’m darkness but I know I am light.” Confidence begets the power to act. It’s personal conviction channeled with focus and energy that keeps us wishing and working to make our wishes come true.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

 

Mid-Shore Art Review: “frag-men-ta-tion” by Mary McCoy

 

Perhaps the most fundamental error of our times is our habit of seeing the world as a collection of unrelated phenomena. On view at Massoni Art through October 8, “frag-men-ta-tion” examines the anxiety so many of us are feeling in these unsettled times of divisive politics and failing ecosystems.

It’s a diverse show, but if there’s anything its eight artists (plus a few gallery artists) hold in common, it’s a profound awareness of the ongoing nature of change. Darlys Ewoldt’s patinated copper sculptures evoke dynamic swirls of energy, Shelley Robzen captures the fleeting gesture of a wave in pure white marble, and Catherine Kernan describes the complex interweavings of watery ripples and reflections. The dazzling array of facets angling across Kenneth Schiano’s abstractions seem caught in the act of constantly adjusting to one another’s presence, while both Grace Mitchell and Alessandra Manzotti conjure ever-shifting swaths of atmospheric light flooding surfaces scarred by weather and time.

There’s a thread of optimism running through this show that lies in the thought that when things fall apart, possibilities open for reassembling the fragments to form a new and better whole. Larry Schroth literally used fragments of his own work, cut up and collaged together into new compositions as the basis of his richly textured archival digital prints. For encaustic artist Karen Hubacher, the process was more painful. After a devastating studio fire, she retrieved beeswax tinged gray with ash and created worlds within worlds with layers of labyrinthine textures inspired by the mold that grew in the wreckage.

Grace Mitchell, “Mountain Meditation VII,” oil on panel, 30″ x 24″

But it’s the exquisite beauty of Grace Mitchell’s luminous landscapes that pulls most on the heartstrings and breeds a specific longing for the health of the earth. Each glowing panel is a reflection of earth’s own beauty. Composed of many, many ultra-thin glazes of paint that Mitchell repeatedly scraped, sanded, gouged, and daubed with casually descriptive strokes of paint, they radiate deep saturated color and an equally deep sense of the successive changes wrought by time. Creative and destructive forces are palpable in these paintings, with their visceral references to mist and rain, verdant growth and decomposition, plays of sunlight and darkness, and the injuries and scars that are part and parcel of life on earth.

Landscape painting has long shaped our collective view of the earth and its beauty. Both in the West, particularly in 19th-century Romanticism, and the East—think of ancient Chinese mountainscapes, this genre has defined the beauty and spiritual presence of the earth, water and sky, affirming how the complex interconnections of topography, light and atmosphere give rise to particular feelings from elation to foreboding.

In an era when nearly everything—from food, clothing and fuel to news and entertainment—is provided by multi-national corporations that draw on sources and influences too various to easily comprehend, it’s a great tragedy that we no longer recognize how all the elements of life are related across both the physical and spiritual realms.

Mitchell’s “Mountain Meditation” series underscores this shortcoming of vision. For millennia, mountains have been universally symbolic of ascent into sacred space. Inspired by 11th-century Chinese paintings of the Zhangjiaje mountains in the Hunan region, Mitchell painted a strangely vertical peak again and again in shifting guises of color, light and mist. It’s a place of bewitching beauty, yet it is weathered and scarred. Coming on the heels of her previous series of mountain paintings exploring the devastation left by the coal industry, Mitchell’s images of this peak are lovely but poignant. Whether by the hand of man or by the ravages of time, it is clear that it will ultimately be worn away and disappear.

The inevitability of change is a subject Mitchell has profoundly considered as the titles of two of her other series illustrate. “Solastalgia,” a term coined by the Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, refers to a particular psychological distress suffered by those whose familiar environment has been dramatically changed or even lost, notably observable as more and more people are affected by our changing climate. The other term, “Epoquetude,” defines what Mitchell calls “an antidote” to the disquieting realization that we are destroying our environment and too many of its species, possibly including ourselves, by offering reassurance in the knowledge that the earth will ultimately survive us, as it has survived countless cataclysms in the distant past.

Change is the only certainty in life, and this show reminds us that what holds true within a painting or a sculpture also corresponds to the larger world—every element, large or small, affects all the others. By reordering these elements, even in subtle ways, we ultimately change the whole. Whether for better or for worse is an open question.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Review: FABRICation at the Academy Art Museum By Mary McCoy

Take your time when you go to see FABRICation, on view through July 9 at the Academy Art Museum. If you don’t allow yourself to stand and look and enjoy getting thoroughly lost in the colorful, animated details of its large-scale fabric artworks, you’ll lose out on savoring their intricacy, vibrant energy and thoughtful ruminations.

Erin E. Castellan, “Window,” acrylic, latex paint, thread, fabric

The show’s co-curators, Reni Gower and Kristy Deetz, are both university professors steeped in the history and practices of art. Their work and the work of the show’s other five artists is directly informed by art history—from Western art’s tradition of realism to 20th-century explorations of abstraction and cultural commentary. But all of it has to do with fabric and how the slow, physical process of creating art is becoming almost an alien activity in our fast-paced digital world.

Virginia Derryberry conjures complex stories about identity and the stages of life’s passages in her enormous quilts in which she combines traditional quilting, embroidery and trapunto with drawing and found object art, in this case actual dresses painstakingly stitched in place.

For Rachel Hayes, abstract painting and minimalism were the point of departure for her large fabric constructions. Her quilt, “Making Modern,” stitched from colored rectangles of fabric and vinyl chosen for their varying amounts of transparency, is bold and eye-catching, and its nuances entice you into looking closer. This is one of her smaller pieces and it’s worth googling photos of her large, outdoor works to see how deftly she uses “feminine” fabrics on a monumental scale to explore how power and fragility may be joined in a potent balance.

The exhibit offers a wide range of approaches. Susan Iverson’s graphic abstractions hand-woven into richly-hued strips of wool hung side-by-side form a quiet meditation on the lush trees and warm sunlight around her secluded woodland home. In contrast to her careful craftsmanship and formal presentation, Natalie Smith’s mixed media “Future Future Garden” is loose and casual. An amiable study of the process of bridging abstraction with the materiality of found objects, its simple brushstrokes painted in gray and green on unstretched canvas form a grid of small crosses that suddenly dissolve into a web of string and bits of cloth mimicking the brushstrokes yet occupying real space.

Reni Gower, “Fragments Encircled,” mixed media

In “Relativity Veil #1,” Deetz makes mischief with the Western painting tradition of realistic illusion. From a distance, her two wood panels appear to be wrapped with crinkled fabric but close-up, the illusion disintegrates into dense networks of small brushstrokes. To rub in the joke, she left a rectangle of bare wood in the center of one panel and a tromp l’oeil painting reproducing the same woodgrain in the center of the other.

In two exuberant, candy-bright works, Gower takes the energy of Abstract-Expressionism, Color Field painting and Pop Art to extremes with overlapping strips of canvas, cheesecloth, nylon and aluminum screens, plastic and anti-slip rug pads thickly brushed, splashed and printed with brilliant shades of acrylic paint. Artists such as Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock, Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns leap to mind but these pieces are veritable explosions of color and activity. So densely layered that their physical depth is almost sculptural, they offer a host of shifting perspectives. It’s fun to peer at them from different angles and see the changing relationships of the intricate, colorful details dancing across their variously solid and see-through layers of materials.

There’s a feminist aspect to this show in that all its artists are women and all work with fabric, but be advised, this is just a sub theme underlying and supporting the real thrust of the exhibit. Fully aware of the stigma, “women’s work,” historically attached to anything to do with cloth or sewing, these artists craftily play with concepts of the feminine as intuitive, nurturing and reflective in contrast to the cold rationality of our current technological culture. Their works are as large and bold as the work of the male artists who predominate in our museums, yet what they are communicating is not so much about gender and marginalization as about how art can be an antidote to the loss of our own humanity as we careen into constant immersion in the virtual world of digital technology.

Erin E. Castellan delights in the freedom she finds in saturating fabric with acrylic and latex paint highlighted with hand-stitching. Her two highly tactile works owe much to the accidental effects of the energetic gestures and free-flowing colors that the Abstract Expressionists reveled in, but to invite close and detailed observation, she augments the painterly patterns of drips and textures with dense patches of embroidery which pucker and pleat the cloth to hilarious effect.

The accompanying wall text reveals Castellan’s interest in “slow viewing,” a practice as essential to understanding and enjoying art as it is to life. In contrast with the passive states our various digital screens encourage, like the other artists in this show, her process of working is one of active experimentation and discovery. By being fully engaged with her physical materials and the effects they produce, she hones her awareness of how colors make us feel, about how certain shapes and gestures can reference landscape, human figures, physical sensation or emotion, and how art can take us into realms where it becomes possible to contemplate the complex relationships underlying the richness of human existence.

 

Art Review: “What’s Next?” at Kohl By Mary McCoy

In these uncertain times, can art make a difference? That’s the question looming over What’s Next?, a compelling show on view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through March 10. Each of its five artists is immersed in investigating one or more of the pressing issues of our times. Whether it’s the environment, race or the economy, the depth and emotional impact of their explorations will touch anyone who bothers to look or care about such things.

Ben Marcin Silver Run, MD, 2009 Archival pigment print 30 x 40 inches Ben Marcin appears courtesy of the C. Grimaldis Gallery

Ben Marcin Silver Run, MD, 2009
Archival pigment print 30 x 40 inches
Ben Marcin appears courtesy of the C. Grimaldis Gallery

Their topics and mediums are invigoratingly diverse, but what these artists have in common is passion and an eyes-wide-open approach to the subject matter. While the show explores a range of concerns, its dominant theme is race and ethnicity. The show’s two African-Americans, Washington artist Larry Cook and Christie Neptune of Brooklyn, NY, both take on the culturally-imposed strictures on black identity. Likewise, Colombian-born Carolina Mayorga, now a naturalized citizen living in Washington, explores the conflicting identities of personal heritage and immigrant status.

A scattering of lottery tickets and scratch-off cards littering a table and the floor in Cook’s “Black Economics,” succinctly conveys the pathos of the hope-against-hope lifestyle of millions of African-Americans deprived of educational and economic opportunities. Neptune’s deeply introspective video entitled “Pulling at My Labels,” follows her ritualized self-examination as she studies her own image with the aid of her camera and literally tears away labels printed with stereotyped designations. It’s a mesmerizing study of the process of deconstructing the self whose spare sets and rigorous investigation strikingly echo the Buddhist practice of stripping away the illusion of self.

There’s also something of a Zen koan in Mayorga’s video and performance, “Maid in the USA.” Those who attended the show’s opening reception were rewarded with her live performance, doubling a similar performance in a video screen on the wall. Both found Mayorga diligently sweeping the floor, her face bland and blank, a black X of tape across her mouth blocking her from speaking. But in bizarre contrast with this stereotyped image of the subservient Latino worker, she wore a brightly-colored traditional Colombian dancing dress, its long, full skirt sweeping lace-trimmed ruffles along in rhythm with her broom and revealing her as a beautiful, regal member of a rich and noble heritage. Like the irresolvable conflict presented in a koan, these two roles can’t rationally coexist. The tension of this dissonance coerces the mind to open, releasing a flood of insights into the cause and effect of cultural biases.

This kind of consciousness-raising is the whole point of issue-oriented art. It illuminates our current problems, acting less as a finger pointing blame than as a vehicle of awareness that challenges us to find intelligent solutions.

Carolina Mayorga Maid in the USA, 2012-17 Video and performance art

Carolina Mayorga
Maid in the USA, 2012-17
Video and performance art

Rachel Schmidt, a white artist, also from DC, credits saving her non-biodegradable trash for six months with making her more aware of her consumer habits. Neatly wrapped in photographs of manicured lawn grass or of an untouched primeval forest, large piles of this trash join a video and some conveniently-placed lawn chairs in her installation “Nostalgia Monument: Float Trip Edition.” “Float Trip” refers to the video projected on the wall in which small groups of partying people drift, beverages in hand, down a river in canoes and inflatables. Oblivious to their surroundings, the river that Schmidt has tellingly erased from the video, they seem not to engage with nature or even notice it and are content, even happy, to enjoy the scripted fun of their “recreational experience.” The “nostalgia” in Schmidt’s title refers to her conception of the work as a monument documenting and commemorating the enjoyment of nature for some future time when access to nature has become unavailable, however the effect of the video seemed, at least to this writer, more to spotlight our present-day consumerist view of nature as a kind of ever-sunny theme park.

Interestingly, the show’s one white man, Baltimore photographer Ben Marcin, straddles several issues, including race and environment, with his suite of photographs of distressed homes. You can read much of our country’s history in his four images. There’s a hobo shack in Baltimore built by a man put out on the streets by the 2008 crash, and a skinny, tall row house pocked with bullet holes stands alone on a desolate city lot, a representative of contemporary inner city decay. An empty house standing on a barren prairie tells of the 1930s Dust Bowl, one of our first environmental disasters, and an abandoned Eastern Shore farm house bears the scars of economic troubles going back at least to the depression following the Civil War but now betokening the modern-day challenges of changing agricultural systems and the pressure to develop land.

Less confrontational than the other artists, Marcin nonetheless inspires a nuanced consideration of the complex causes behind his houses’ decay. But whether subtle or passionately direct, each of these artists uses art to trigger thoughts and questions, and you can’t help but leave this exhibit more aware and awake.

Perhaps the most telling part of it all was observing people’s reactions to Mayorga’s live performance. Some briefly watched her sweeping before walking on, others stopped and stared seeming either amused or thoughtful, while still others, whether out of embarrassment or indifference, totally ignored her. By its very nature, performance art is in-your-face. Rather than hanging quietly on the wall or at least politely distancing itself to a theater stage, it occurs up close in real space and time. There’s a powerful metaphor in the reactions of gallery visitors to Mayorga’s performance for how we react to the issues at hand, particularly the political situation we’re now confronted with.

In their vigorous churning up of their concerns, these artists offer an earnest invitation not to ignore or joke about our current situation but to investigate, learn and address it head on. The show’s brave premise that art can make a difference parallels the increasingly urgent recognition that the only way to affect the changes we need to survive and prosper is for individual citizens of this country (and the world in general) to band together and as the T-shirt says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Review: Nara Park—“Believe” at Kohl Gallery by Mary McCoy

Paradox is the foundation of Nara Park’s crumbling walls filling the Kohl Gallery. When you first walk in, it feels as if you are entering the disintegrating remains of an extensive sacred temple built of solid blocks of rose-colored marble. Jagged walls rise above human height blocking your view of the mysteries beyond only to tumble down to the floor in a confusion of rubble. The gaps in between offer enticing glimpses of what seems a mysterious labyrinthine structure.

But the coolness and weightiness of stone is absent. There’s none of mineral sparkle of polished marble, only a plasticky gleam. Solid stone is revealed as hollow boxes folded from sheets of plastic printed with a faux marble pattern. Manufactured as decorative packaging boxes, they simulate the beauty and elegance of the marble but have nothing of its weight, solidity and durability.

Park has purposefully conjured the presence of sacred space in this deeply experiential installation only to instantly undermine it. Its title, “I Was Here,” succinctly calls up the deeply human need to make a mark, to commemorate, to create something strong, stable and unchanging, but her materials infer that it’s a hollow wish.

Stone symbolizes stability and permanence. It’s the material of monuments, gravestones and temples of every faith. But while Park’s faux stone temple briefly summons its power, it’s all a charade, a fact underscored by a series of jokes. The brownish faux stone of the fallen rubble doesn’t match the blocks in the wall, and plastic tabs, the final adhesive fold holding each box together, are left visible here and there. As if that weren’t enough, the marble pattern of the blocks repeats over and over so that a darkish spot constantly reappears, making polka dots across entire walls.

“I Was Here,” Nara Park, plastic packaging boxes

“I Was Here,” Nara Park, plastic packaging boxes

Once the impression of weighty stone is left behind, the plastic itself holds a certain delight. Rigid but thin, it’s hollow inside and slightly translucent, so that the light passing through creates a pleasant glow. Thanks to today’s high-definition digital printing, the repeating photographic image of real marble lends the blocks a quality of nuanced natural loveliness. Park’s installation is beautiful but decidedly artificial, and that’s what gives it its dissonant potency.

Simulation is rife in contemporary culture. It has its merits (faux fur saves animals’ lives) and its faults (fake wood paneling can make for some very tacky architecture), but there’s the niggling worry that so much artificiality points to, even encourages, a surface understanding of life and a concurrent loss of insight into reality.

Park toys with this thought in three small wall sculptures made of bits of wood coated with stone-textured paint and layered like stone strata. These are more cerebral than “I Was Here” and seem to function primarily as intriguing studies into the curiously tactile effects of the textured paint and the rhythmic patterns of stone formation and erosion, perhaps in preparation for some future project.

The exhibit’s other smaller sculpture, “Believe,” is more thought provoking. Backed into a tight alcove, it’s a simulation of a wishing well, its sides built of more hollow blocks made from dark, faux stone wallpaper. The traditional round well is compressed into an ellipse and holds black aquarium sand instead of water. Still, there are coins lying in the sand—visitors have made wishes, and you are invited to do so, too.

“Believe,” Nara Park, wallpaper, aquarium sand, coins

“Believe,” Nara Park, wallpaper, aquarium sand, coins

The question arises (as it inevitably does even at real wishing wells) as to whether it really works. The inference is that perhaps it’s not the magic of natural stone and pure water welling up from the depths of the earth that causes wishes to come true, but the focused impulse for good things to happen. It’s an idea that fascinates Park, and she will collect the coins at the end of the show to donate to Easels and Arts, Supporting the Arts in Kent County Schools, effectively making some wishes, at least, come true.

It took Park eight days to install the thousands of blocks in “Believe” and “I Was Here,” and that doesn’t even touch on the amount of time it took for her to fold each box back in her studio in Washington, DC. That someone has gone to so much trouble to create artwork that will prick the visitor with curiosity and wonderings about the several threads of its provenance is noteworthy, in and of itself.

The blatant artifice of stacking plastic boxes to simulate a stone temple not only questions our deeply seated infatuation with our ability to manufacture simulations of nature and experience, it challenges the power of any object of human creation. To build a temple is to commemorate beliefs and culture and ultimately, ourselves. But every memorial will eventually crumble, a truth that Park emphasizes by the ruinous state of hers and the presence of thinner, gray blocks in its lowest strata, a subtle suggestion that the pink temple was a refurbishment of the remains of an earlier version.

The law of impermanence applies to everything in the physical world, from plastic to stone to the human body. Neither synthetic nor organic will ultimately endure. The final paradox is that Park’s hollow boxes aren’t empty—at least of meaning—and her wishing well may indeed be magical.

Informed by the hours of labor it took to create these works, the complex web of ideas she is pondering, and the reactions and understandings awakened in the visitors, it does seem they hold something ineffable. It’s the apprehension that belief itself has power. Just as when we believe we are happy, we will smile at others and spread our happiness, if we believe in power of art to stimulate insight, we are opening a door to let it in.

The exhibit continues through October 23 at the Kohl Gallery, located in Gibson Center for the Arts at Washington College. Hours are Wednesday through Friday 1:00 to 6:00 and Saturday and Sunday 11:00 to 4:00.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Art Review: Marcy Dunn Ramsey and Michael Kahn by Mary McCoy

There are two shows on view at Massoni Art through June 18 that interweave both on the gallery’s walls and in the mind’s eye. Full of playfulness and joy, the graceful silhouettes of marsh grasses and leafy aquatic plants caught in watery light are the subject of both Marcy Dunn Ramsey’s “Playing on the Edge” and Michael Kahn’s “just this.” There are a few broader views of tidal wetlands, sometimes with dry land in the distance, but most of their images are so close up that you feel you are practically part of the scene.

It’s a funny thing to see two artists—one a painter, one a photographer—exploring such similar ideas that their images look almost alike, at least at first glance. Ramsey’s “Shallows” and Kahn’s “Aquatic Plant Series 1” both present confusions of reeds and arrow-shaped leaves spiking up from the calm, shallow water where their reflections float above the bits of decaying reeds and leaves that lie ghostly beneath the water’s surface. One is a colorful oil painting, the other a subtly toned photograph, but both present intimate views of the abundant life that flourishes in the wetlands bordering our waterways.

Although the two didn’t conspire to create lookalike images, both are long-term Massoni artists and well aware of one another’s work. There’s no doubt that each has inspired the other, at least in terms of the formal aspects of subject matter and composition but both artists have their own unique voices.

Marcy Ramsey, “Shallows,” oil

Marcy Ramsey, “Shallows,” oil

Ramsey has been specializing in kayak-view perspectives of our local wetlands for many years. Her exuberant canvases filled edge to edge with colorful, dancing reeds and their watery reflections have been shown internationally and are familiar to anyone who follows art on the Eastern Shore.

Kahn, on the other hand, eschews color in favor of the luminous, infinitely subtle range of shades offered by toned silver gelatin photography. Internationally known for his stunning photographs of sailing vessels slicing through billowing waves, in his quieter moments, he, too, explores the intimate details of wetlands, those fragile, ever-changing thresholds between water and land.

Wetlands are essential to the health of the planet. The ecological significance of these fecund borderlines where water and land mingle can’t be overemphasized and thankfully is becoming much more widely appreciated. These two artists, along with many others, are helping to put the focus on the delicate beauty of these long overlooked places.

There’s a feeling of enchantment as you glance around the gallery and find yourself surrounded by shimmering water and stands of marsh grass. Both Kahn and Ramsey are fascinated by the rhythms and abstract qualities of the never-quite-vertical reeds and their reflections in rippling water, and both delight in capturing sunlight and the reflections of clouds on the water’s surface. It’s like being in the midst of a visual conversation about the meeting of water, sky and the earthy life cycle of plants as they grow, mature, die and return their nutrients to the fertile marsh.

True to the character of wetlands, everything in these works is in transition. Tides are moving in and out, light is shifting, and the grasses and leafy plants are changing with the seasons. These are joyful, playful images as both artists happily explore the distortions and calligraphic squiggles created by the reflections of grasses in rippling water and the comic dimples encircling stems emerging from the water. As animated as cartoon characters, these grasses reach and bend and gesticulate to one another. Kahn finds two groups of leafy plants and reeds seeming to carry on a discussion, while Ramsey captures reeds dancing together in sweeping curves and angles. The yielding gentleness of the tip of a reed slipping into the water in Kahn’s “Aquatic Plant Series 3” is echoed by the broken but still upright reeds in Ramsey’s “Threnody,” whose title refers to a lament or wailing song.

Still, the differences between these two artists’ works go beyond painting versus photography, chief among them being the contrast between Ramsey’s vivid, often surprising colors and Kahn’s silvery tones.

Michael Kahn, “Aquatic Plant Series 1,” toned silver gelatin photograph

Michael Kahn, “Aquatic Plant Series 1,” toned silver gelatin photograph

Kahn takes you into quiet, contemplative realms. Seeking out subtleties and radiance, he finds pure beauty in the collective gestures of reeds reaching skyward and such delicate details as droplets of water on leaves and sets them off against rising mists and the glow of an unseen sun. His images shimmer like molten silver and lean into transcendence and spirituality.

Ramsey, by contrast, is a mischief-maker. Marsh grasses, generally light green or beige in real life, show up in her paintings in wacky hues from bright orange to turquoise to maroon or even lime green. What looks like a realistic scene at a distance (note the almost photographic sheen of the water in “Shallow”) disintegrates close up into networks of lines and dabs of color hovering over strangely tilted, flat expanses of blue, aqua or green connoting water. Her canvases are as lively as illustrations in a storybook and equally as compelling.

While faithful to the beauty of these marshes, they are also filled with little jokes. Unlike the perfectly mirrored images in Kahn’s photographs, Ramsey’s don’t necessarily match what’s being reflected, and when they are distorted in rippling waves, their colors can turn into something resembling the stripes on a T-shirt. The realism of her paintings, if it can be called that, comes from her deep familiarity with marshes—the way their grasses grow and tangle, the way reflections play across the water. Within these parameters, she’s free to poke and prod and experiment with color, line, form, composition, with just as much abandon as any Abstract Expressionist.

The flavor of Ramsey’s and Kahn’s works may be very different, but the most significant thing they share is a sense of wonder as they explore the unique character of these places at particular moments in time. Poised tenuously on the threshold between land and water, these wetlands teem with vitality. You see things growing, flourishing, dying back, and decomposing—nature busily fulfilling its own potential. It’s a kind of affirmation of the rightness of the ongoing cycles of life that somehow puts our own lives into perspective.

 

Review: ‘Invitation Only’ by Mary McCoy

“By Invitation Only,” on view at RiverArts in Chestertown through May 29, is a zesty collection of works by eight artists imported to Chestertown from Easton, the Baltimore/Washington area and California. RiverArts conceived this show as a strategy for introducing fresh, dynamic ideas to its gallery and asked Ellie Altman, former director of Adkins Arboretum, to curate the show. Although there is no stated theme, not surprisingly, it reflects her background by centering on works that explore nature and natural processes.

These artists bring a broad range of mediums and approaches, yet the whole show is alive with interactions like a multi-fold conversation. Sculptor Marcia Wolfson Ray’s tall square tower constructed from vines, dog fennel and marsh elder stands beside Roberta Staat’s large oil pastel diptych of grazing cattle. Unrelated in materials and subject matter, they nonetheless share such rugged, energetic textures and warm earthy colors that they seem to belong together. It’s a curious but highly satisfying relationship.

Lone Leaf, by George Holzer

Lone Leaf, by George Holzer

It’s like that throughout the show. One artwork initiates thoughts, perhaps about the effects of light or natural patterns of growth or the flow of water, then another takes up the theme from a slightly different angle or even a radically contrasting one.
Wolfson Ray’s sculptures bristling with dried plants from dog fennel to hosta leaves are a total contrast to George Holzer’s large, shadowy photographs in which a root, a splinter or a leaf is isolated in a field of velvety black. The first is rustic, the second superbly elegant, yet both are skillfully crafted works that focus the viewer’s eye on the pure beauty and fascinating eccentricities found in plant forms.

One of two plein air painters in this show, Staat draws on time-honored traditions of landscape painting with her engaging waterscapes, farm fields and Chestertown scenes. Lending the show a satisfying sense of grounding, her work serves as a starting point in a dialogue on the possibilities of painting.

Her pure pleasure in capturing the landscape’s color and forms with strokes of paint is shared by Julia Sutliff, whose small plein air paintings brim with joyful, improvisational animation. Her dancing brushstrokes are quick and simplified as they capture sunlight falling on leaves and milkweed pods. Everywhere the seasons are in evidence, and their colors speak meaning to us. There are the bright greens of spring and new life, the maturity and peace of summer’s darker shades, and the pink of flowers that calls to mind love and sexuality.

Lone Leaf, by George Holzer

Lone Leaf, by George Holzer

This sense of nature’s joyful animation recurs in Eva Stina Bender’s exuberant watercolor drawings and Marilyn Banner’s lush encaustic paintings, two artists who explore the visual effects of flowing water but in very different ways.

With virtuosity as fluid as the watercolor itself, Bender washes loose fields of color onto her paper allowing the paint to wick along its fibers so that bits of pigment are captured along the way, very much as silt follows water as it flows. Exploiting this natural process, she deftly suggests the ever-shifting forces of nature, time and circumstance, ephemeral moments brought into focus by the trees and flowers that she casually draws on top.

Banner is also fascinated by the effects of flowing water, and she mimics them by swirling, dripping and dribbling layer upon layer of molten wax onto her wood panels. Her shimmering seascapes and close-up studies of the shifting sand and bits of shell and seaweed at the water’s edge are both depictions of her subject matter and models of the processes that formed them. The rich colors and myriad details of their many translucent layers suggest the passage of time, and strangely, they often look as much like vast galaxies as intimate glimpses of water and sand.

Time and scale are also slippery entities in Ruth Pettus’s many tiny canvasses entitled simply “Six Seasons I and II.” Composed of swaths of acrylic paint encrusted with sand, their size makes them feel intimate and introspective, yet they evoke sweeping views of faraway horizons, perhaps across an ocean or a lonely landscape in the half-light after sunset.

The visceral physicality of Pettus’s gritty textures and her spare, minimal approach to landscape carries over into Carol Minarick’s paintings. Minarick’s smooth expanses of beige, black and white contrast with rough, pock-marked surfaces as she sets illusionistic painting aside to create works in which the meeting of two flat planes hints at a broad horizon or brushy forms imply huge, billowing clouds. Sometimes she adds words that combine with her simplified imagery to conjure the raucous call of a crow or the forces of eons of geological time. The openness of her suggestions invites the viewer to open his or her imagination to multiple possibilities of storytelling and meaning.

The works in this show are like captured glimpses of the natural world, fleeting moments in which we see the results of things that have happened and the promise of things about to happen. While all these artists present strong, engaging work, what’s most exhilarating about the show is the realization that they are continually making discoveries as they work. It’s an ongoing creative process whose infinity of possibilities parallels the creative process of nature itself.

Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 am – 4pm, Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. On First Fridays the gallery is open until 8pm. For more information, please visit www.ChestertownRiverArts.org or call 410 778 6300. RiverArts is located at 315 High Street, Suite 106, Chestertown, MD. 21620.

Review: Ken Schiano at Academy Art Museum By Mary McCoy

There are some works of art that you can look at again and again and always see something more. Ken Schiano’s paintings, on view at the Academy Art Museum through November 8, are a case in point. Full of impossibly angled planes and baffling color relationships, they provoke you to puzzle out what is going on and how Schiano managed to do it.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 8.49.13 AMA tiny slice of purple peers in from the left edge of “The History of Art in Dyssynchronous Order: fig. e,” its brushy surface an odd contrast to the bulk of the slightly iridescent dark green wedge beside it. It’s like comparing children’s scribbles with the metallic paint coating a car’s hood—the two don’t belong together, and from there it gets more bewildering. Like most of Schiano’s paintings, there’s so much going on that it makes your head spin. It’s as if you’re looking at many moments of time occurring all at once.

Anchored in a sea of periwinkle blue, a series of flat triangles of color march down the canvas, partially obscuring a complicated field of mottled shadows and garish hues as they go. Schiano works with dry pigment mixed with cold wax, a lush, semi-translucent medium admirably suited to his method of building up and scraping back layers of eccentric geometric shapes. This creates a captivating palimpsest of texture and activity. Edges of quadrilaterals show through fields of color painted on top, black is scratched and scraped away to reveal bright cerulean underneath and orange beneath that, and all the while, red triangles hover on top. There’s a whole archaeology of paint here.

Schiano thrives on uncomfortable relationships. His geometric shapes are precise, impersonal and very much at odds with the chaotic masses of texture and color beneath them. Trained as an architect, he constantly plays with perspective, teasingly angling a plane to seem to recede in space, then Escher-like, bending it impossibly forward with a shift in color or an edge sloping at a totally illogical angle. And as if they come from separate universes, his colors leap wildly from Crayola bright to subtle dusky shades to hues that seem to be corroding before your very eyes.

As experiments with geometric planes, Schiano’s paintings might seem chilly and cerebral were it not for the physical lusciousness of their surfaces. Like encaustics, cold wax has the seductive qualities of beeswax, and Schiano makes the most of it. Using his hands or a putty knife, he coats the surface, layering shape after shape, scraping back, veiling, unveiling, buffing and scratching back in with scribbling line work. The artist’s hand is everywhere, humanizing the rigidity of the geometry, making it friendly and enticing, and best of all, making it possible to trace the history of each image’s creation, step by step.

Ken Schiano, “Matrix,” 2015, polychrome wood, 96” x 96” x 96”

Ken Schiano, “Matrix,” 2015, polychrome wood, 96” x 96” x 96”

Like a latter-day Abstract Expressionist, Schiano allows his intuition to guide him as he plays with color, texture and form. There’s something of the academic in his systematic exploration of the visual tensions between forces and counter-forces, so it comes as no surprise that he taught studio art and architectural design for several years in the 1970s.

Hans Hoffman’s celebrated exploration of the visual push-pull of warm and cool colors and light and dark values immediately leaps to mind. Schiano’s paintings also call up the precise planar geometries of hard-edge painting, but while artists such as Elsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland purposefully rejected the distinction between figure and background, forcefully rejecting illusions of depth, Schiano teases deep space from color relationships and sly twists of perspective.

Like Kelly and Noland, Schiano sometimes makes shaped paintings, that is, non-rectangular works whose contours are integral to the composition. It’s the perfect vehicle for his concerns. Almost a square, “Debe Debe” rests on the edge of a truncated corner as it tilts curiously to the left. Awkward color shapes rubbed partially transparent angle toward and along its center, like glints in a faceted jewel, but everything is off-kilter. The top of a mustard-hued shape flairs outward as if bending forward but a triangle of pale salmon pops up in front. Meanwhile, strips of white on top of sooty gray on top of muted turquoise forcibly push a knife of glowing orange back to hover at the edge of an abyss filled with smoldering dark red and black.

Ken Schiano, “Debe Debe,” 2015, dry pigment and wax on PVC panel, 51” x 54”

Ken Schiano, “Debe Debe,” 2015, dry pigment and wax on PVC panel, 51” x 54”

By mixing his own paints from dry pigment, Schiano is able to create an incredible range of extremely subtle colors. On the pretext of bringing the atmosphere of his studio to the Museum, he arranged quotes that he has posted in his studio in a line around the top of the gallery’s walls. One of them is “There are familiar colors, unfamiliar colors and forbidden colors.” It’s interesting to read what he’s thinking about, but the quotes are a distraction from the paintings themselves. This is powerful, fascinating work. Schiano doesn’t need to explain himself.

The work itself reveals countless insights into his process of creation. Several watercolors from his “Birds of Paradise Series,” each one just four squares of color arranged in a grid, present concise, nuanced studies of how intimately colors affect one another, whether juxtaposed or veiled one on top of another. Quiet meditations compared to the frenetic activity of his larger paintings, they are evidence of Schiano’s lovingly rigorous investigation of color theory. Likewise, a set of small monotypes printed on handmade paper in soft shades of brown are genial, gemlike experiments in bringing flat, geometric shapes to life with color, texture and overlay.

The single sculpture in the exhibit, “Matrix Series,” is also a kind of visualization tool. Made up of several open wooden rectangles, very much like picture frames, it’s a study of the relationship of seemingly irrationally angled planes. Painted in hot and cool colors, the frames seem at first to be a mindless jumble but closer inspection reveals that they are carefully interwoven and balanced to support each other both physically and visually. A model in cooperation, their seemingly precarious angles are maintained by mutual dependence.

The sculpture stands as a kind of three-dimensional explanation of Schiano’s intent throughout his work. However disparate his colors, forms and textures, however tense their visual conundrums of shifting space and their inference of slippery glimpses of time may be, they pulse with energetic movement held in perfect balance. Their forms may simultaneously evoke sensations of careening flight, soft quietude, a stab to the chest, a warm glow in the solar plexus and more, but always they speak of our familiar foggy urges to see back into the multiple histories of life and forward into its upcoming possibilities.

 

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Review: John Ruppert at the Academy Art Museum by Mary McCoy

Three huge pumpkins cast in aluminum and another one in rust-red iron lie on the Academy Art Museum’s front lawn. Sagging under their own great weight, they cheerfully evoke the force of gravity, one of John Ruppert’s favorite subjects. But although his exhibit, on view both outside and inside the Museum through November 8, is titled Grounded, gravity is only one force he conjures in his sculptures and large photographs. This show unfolds as a study of the ever-changing nature of physical form as Ruppert traces the effects of changing light, shifting atmospheres, moving water, geological forces, and time itself.

Like a young child or a scientist, Ruppert has a lively curiosity about the natural world and the ways its elements affect how we live. He is fascinated with the pull of gravity, the fiery origins of rock, the persistence of eroding waves, and lightning’s splintering power. But although his sculptures and photographs are large and powerful, they are tempered with impish humor.

John Ruppert, “Yellow Gourd, Homage to Van Gogh,” powder-coated chain-link fabric and stainless steel, 7 ft. x 11 ft.

John Ruppert, “Yellow Gourd, Homage to Van Gogh,” powder-coated chain-link fabric and stainless steel, 7 ft. x 11 ft.

Sharing the front lawn with the pumpkins is “Yellow Gourd, Homage to Van Gogh” from his ongoing series of vessel-shaped sculptures made of chain-link fencing held upright by the tension of its own structure. Most of these vessels are strikingly symmetrical, but this eleven-foot wide ovoid purposefully lists a little sideways, just like a gourd, and glows as yellow as one of Van Gogh’s sunflowers against the green of the grass.

A veteran of numerous gallery and museum shows and the recipient of many grants, awards and residencies, Ruppert has become known for his castings of rocks and “lightning strikes,” the splintered shafts of wood split when trees are hit by lightning. Jagged verticals towering nearly nine feet tall, his three freestanding “Lightning Strikes” dramatically evoke the brute force of lightning, but Ruppert doesn’t leave it there.

A quartet of smaller strikes, all cast from the same mold, are lined up on one wall like color samples at a paint store. Similar but not identical, each was cast with a different metal—bronze, stainless steel, copper or iron. It’s a textbook comparison of the varying effects of color, texture, detailing and sheen a sculptor can expect from these diverse materials. There are sparkly glints in the copper, while the soft sheen of the oxides left on the stainless steel trails off into delicate, lacy edges. The iron picks up much less detail yet there’s strength in its primordial reddish glow, and the frost of lichen-green patina on the sooty black of the bronze highlights the intricacies of the craggy wood grain lending it a quality of ancient hoariness.

AAM-Strikes-Water_crop

John Ruppert, installation view at Academy Art Museum with “Lightning Strikes” and “Reflections II, Lawrys Island”

Ruppert’s fascination with the process of creation is tangible throughout this show. His subjects invariably speak of their own making, whether they were formed by nature or by the artist. His sculptures are laced with ragged seams left by the molds they were cast from. Rather than polish this evidence away, Ruppert leaves them as clues to the process of their fabrication. Similarly, the subjects he photographs testify to their own particular origins.

Two tall vertical photographs share one wall of the gallery. Shot in the British Virgin Islands, glints of water in a shadowy chamber formed by a pile of massive granite boulders in “The Baths, Virgin-Gorda” tell of primeval lava flows, geological shifts in the sea floor, and millennia of weathering by waves and wind. The labyrinth of entryways and chambers in “White Chamber Agra Fort,” inside a UNESCO World Heritage site in India, shows the cleverness of its builders in designing to prevent a charge by the enemy’s elephants, then the primary vehicles of battle. In both cases, the photos describe the origins of places, natural or manmade, even as they masterfully evoke the intimacy of interior space and the promise of what can be glimpsed beyond.

Each of the images in this exhibit was created from a series of photographs digitally stitched together. This technique allows Ruppert to achieve a crystalline clarity throughout even as he combines individual moments of changing light and slightly altered perspective. These almost subliminal shifts give rise to an inkling that these places are not static and fixed in time but always changing and evolving, always in process.

There’s a pleasing irony in Ruppert’s work. His fine craftsmanship and mastery of sculptural and photographic techniques imbues his work with a quality of strength and physicality, yet his ideas are rooted in an exploration of the eternal process of change. The hardest rocks are worn smooth and round; the tallest tree is splintered by a flash of lightning. Throughout his work, time, the fourth dimension, is as palpable as solid form. Only one thing can be counted on and that is that time will change everything.

 

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