Joel Darland

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Something More

Something Pretty at Transylvania’s Morlan Gallery means to complicate that idea. The artwork does so in a way that is both literal and conceptual, dealing with the viewer’s experience and judgment of the objects on display and the baggage brought to ideas of beauty, aesthetics, identity, and power by the act of looking and the often-trivializing effect of prettiness.

The works shown present an emphatic statement that they are more than nice things to look at. Instead, these works and their artists reach out to the viewer in ways that are deeply affective and lend a great deal of depth and complexity against the often patronizing and dismissive designation of what is called pretty. As Curator Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman explains, the word “renders anything associated with the term solely superficial and without any intellectual or cultural significance.” It usually plays on surfaces and appearances, concerned with outward expressions that can be categorized and hierarchized according to things like class, gender, and racial and sexual identity. But Goodman presents a means to complicate this process, a means to challenge the viewer’s own perceptions and biases in regards to art, artists, and their subject matter. It is an opportunity to examine the ways beauty can be a tool of erasure rather than visibility.

Loosely grouped by media, the works are displayed in several sectors within the gallery. Dominating a single walled-off area is a projection of HuiMeng Wang’s video work You Are Beautiful You Should be Seen (2015). As a kind of introduction that immediately grabs attention when entering the gallery space, the video shows the artist on a windy and overcast beach. She washes large exposed driftwood tree trunks and attempts to dig them out even as the blowing sand encroaches and reburies them. A narrator recounts the story that spawned the footage, and explains how such a situation and the beauty it holds is fleeting and often comes up against what one expects it to be. The narration is spoken with a generic male voice and its tone curtly matter-of-fact. As the video loops this disconnect between image and story seems to grate against deeper implications of visibility and beauty. Though a glossy sheen is provided by the narration, Wang’s nuanced meditation on beauty and depiction does not remain hidden.

Angela Dufresne, ‘Listen to Me You Idiot’, 2013

This engagement with pretty surfaces and what lives beneath them (or outside them) is reiterated as the viewer shifts to the exhibition’s sector of painted works. The painted surface was long a modernist preoccupation and here two of the artists artists penetrate the concept of surfaces through an engagement with images and content. Angela Dufresne’s works play with the multifarious conceptions of being painted. It’s Like This (2012) and Listen to Me You Idiot (2013) feature bright and thickly applied swathes of paint combined into grotesque hybrid animal-human faces. But these are not monsters, their expressions are complex and conflicted, and their colors worn like masks. Similar to the idea of being painted up, the concept of expression is both an affectation and a way of staking out and claiming identity. In these paintings, the surface is inextricably tied to both the painted object and painted body. In both cases there is a striking amount of depth.

Likewise are Tiffany Calvert’s painting investigations into the nature of surfaces, application of paint, and complex engagements with the tenuous nature of beauty. Her largest work, Untitled #305 (2018), is a deconstruction of an old Flemish still life. The image is digitally processed and printed on canvas and painted over with bold, wide, and flat strokes of blended color. The painted strokes sit on top of and next to similar digitally produced effects. Together they bring out the constructed nature of the painting, not just in its materials, but in the connection between images and reality. Two other works, Untitled #297 (2017) and Untitled #290, allow the viewer full access to the illusion. Frescos applied to roughly shaped insulation boards, the painted objects only hide their front and back surfaces. The banal material in-between shatters the paintings’ ability to easily inhabit the space of artistic objects and artistic beauty. Instead they teeter on the conceptual edge between art and just pretty objects.

Justin Favela, ‘Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco)’, 2017.

A bridge between materials and beauty is further stressed in the art objects of Justin Favela. Here expectations and identities clash. With images drawn from the oeuvre of 19th century Mexican painter José María Velasco, Favela’s “paintings” reappraise Velasco’s concepts of land nationalism through the application of media heavy with racial and class implications. Velasco’s lofty nationalist propaganda, in the form of idealized landscapes, is reimagined in Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco) (2017) with the cut paper of the Mexican piñata. The landscapes are abstracted to the point that they lose cohesion and become much more fluid patterns of shape and color. No longer tied to often-overtly racist nationalism, Favela’s objects create new spaces for engagement and exploration where the viewer might be free to encounter identities and experiences with a depth and through materials not before considered.

Subjective ideas of beauty and prettiness are often used to close off certain identities, bodies, or experiences from deeper engagement. The complexity and ambivalence of beauty is a common thread in the overall experience Goodman has curated. All these artworks have a depth that seeks to muddle the pleasurable and powerful implications of looking. This is a call to reexamine what it means to look. This seems most complete in Stephan Rolfe Powell’s glass objects. They begin as playful and aesthetically interesting but reveal much more in the implications of their forms. Two colorful glass objects, Cracking Frenetic Glare (2006) and Twilight Curiosity Buns (2000), are playful, erotic, presented as pseudo-bodily spectacles. Yet below their surfaces runs an anxiety about such bodily comparisons, especially as the objects sprout long phallic tubes from suggestively shaped bulbous forms. They reflect back on the viewer the subjective of the gaze.

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

This anxiety becomes more acute in Powell’s two large curved plates of glass. These one-inch thick glass walls, beautifully backlit, stand on low pedestals and tower above the heads of most visitors and confront the viewer with complex, patterned forms that dip and flow through the depth of the glass. The complex tangles of colorful tubes seem to inhabit their own world within the glass, locked inside but on the verge of escaping outward. At first pleasing to look at, the forms grow more sinister the more they are considered. What could be flowers or simple geometric shapes might be mouths or other orifices attached to long squirming creatures or phallic organs. Like with Powell’s other works, there is a transformation in the experience of looking as the surface-level beauty deepens into more complicated and even unsettling territory.

In this exhibition, the viewer is confronted and must likewise confront what it means to look at, see, and appraise things and bodies. The power dynamics of expectations versus experience can be reconsidered and rerouted. In the end these works demand more than a passing a glance but a more critical and compassionate look.

Arts

Clear Outlook

Matthew Metzger’s new collection of paintings and sculptures at Moremen Contemporary straddles a difficult line between past and present. These works embrace an approach to materials and process that echoes tradition while carving out a place to thrive and reassess that tradition in new and immediate contexts.

At first glance Metzger’s paintings are highly polished snapshots of dense and misty skies. They recall Constable’s or Turner’s nineteenth century studies of voluminous cloud formations, or Whistler’s later atmospheric images of night skies obfuscated by titles that referenced music or color. Such images of the sky already blur distinctions between the abstract and figurative. To this extent a hazy sunset and similarly hued color field might only be distinguished by a descriptive title or logically placed line that imitates a horizon.

Metzger’s paintings oscillate between these divisions very subtly. Paintings of similar luminous mists or fog feature diverse titles that describe mountains, seas, people, and colors. There is a sense that each painting’s depiction of atmosphere is much more complex than a simple record of weather conditions. The word “atmosphere” can describe both a cloudy landscape and its pervading emotional effects. Metzger’s paintings suspend these dual prongs in such a way that the viewer’s experience engages both definitions in a direct, meaningful, and very present way.

“Seascape Series”, natural pigments and oils on canvas, 2017

It is probably unimportant that these images, to the extent that they are only images, have a basis in observations. The atmospheres that Metzger has created in and on his paintings exist wholly in the paintings themselves. The way he has combined constituent parts, pigments, oils, canvas, linen, and wood, results in objects with a tangible presence that can be readily perceived by the viewer.

An example is seen in Metzger’s Seascapes series. Each of the five small square paintings show (vaguely) views of dense and foggy skies over similarly colored water. Four of these paintings are arranged in a line creating a sense of both commonality and atmospheric development. In the fourth painting, on top of its swirling mists and faint luminous light, a sharp nearly three-dimensional line abruptly cuts across the painting’s lower half. What initially appears to be a horizon cutting between water and sky actually pokes outward towards the viewer. This breaks both the illusion of the image and the viewer’s own illusions about what the picture might purport to be. This cut is a reminder that canvas presents a tenuous bridge between object and image, one that can be quickly shattered by a single line. The suggestive nature of their titles and the viewer’s ready acceptance are deftly questioned by this subversion.

“Water for Jim Harrison”, natural pigments and oils on linen, 37×37, 2018.

It seems that the most important part of these paintings is Metzger’s interest in his media. He produces his own paints and mixes them from sourced pigments. Again this recalls tradition, where painters of the past put great effort into the preparation of their paints. But here the deliberateness of Metzger’s choice has deep ramifications in the finished products. The colors swirled throughout Water for Jim Harrison pull the atmosphere away from an initially recognizable image of land and water towards the reality of its paint, canvas, and even colors as a mixture of very real materials.

Even the colors are like objects in their own right, molecules of pigment deftly smeared across the painting’s surface. Even though it is one of the more recognizably figurative paintings, the atmospheric reality of Water for Jim Harrison protrudes into the viewers space, this time through several textured masses of paint that interfere with the totality of the painting’s illusionistic wholeness.

This blurring of image and object is the same with the artist’s sculptural works. Like the paintings hinting at skies or clouds, the sculptures have forms that hint at the human body. They recall malformed yet still recognizable busts or figures. Yet this is never conclusive especially when close examination reveals connections that move beyond the concept of bare depiction.

“Adams (Cantos LXIV)”, isocyanate and polyol resin, oil, iron, bronze, acids, 2017.

“Adams (Cantos LXIV”, isocyanate and polyol resin, oil, iron, bronze, acids, 2017.

Two of the sculptures, Jefferson (Cantos XXI) and Adams (Cantos LXIV), derive their titles from Ezra Pound’s long and fragmentary poem The Cantos. Pound’s cantos can be understood as portraits in poem form that use pieces of their namesakes’ quotations cut and arranged in new ways. The same might be said for the sculptures. They appear to be layered aggregations of parts and pieces that have been dripped on or bubbled out from their surfaces.

The objects are hard and real, produced by the action of acids, polymers, and metals reacting with each other. And on top of that, dust and stray cobwebs further assert this presence in front of the viewer. The realness of these objects cannot be ignored, even if such materiality contradicts their initial human likenesses. Rather, they are reminiscent of bodies at the most basic physical level.

As Metzger explains in his statement, the interactions of the paintings and sculptures offer the viewer a template for contemplation. These are objects meeting one another. For the viewer, this exhibition strives to be more than a set of images that are looked at and thought about. Rather, they are things to be felt and perceived as canvas, pigment, metal, and oil by flesh, blood, and bone. While they don’t breathe the air, their atmospheres are ones that extend beyond depiction and into our shared space.

The exhibition is on view through October 12th at the Moremen Gallery located at 710 W. Main Street in Louisville (Next to 21c Museum Hotel).

Joel Darland is a contributor to UnderMain who always tries to look at things closely. He recently received his Master’s in Art History from the University of Louisiville and has a deep interest in the material realities of photography and other art media, an interest that sometimes comes in handy when taking his own pictures.

Arts

High Spirits in High Spaces

In the first chapter of philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1964 treatise on the intimacy of personal spaces, The Poetics of Space, he notes that the houses of childhood daydreams are often vertically oriented. These dream spaces move from the fear and anxiety of dark basements and cellars to the bright fresh air of warm and sunny attics.

Such an orientation is not lost on Erika Strecker’s and John Medwedeff’s Exuberance! at the Kentucky Children’s Hospital. The installation consists of seven aluminum kites that snake up two floors to finally hang motionless but graceful just below the expansive skylight that looms over the hospital’s lobby. Though the artists’ aim was at first something “happy and uplifting,” the installation adds more to its space than a pleasing and whimsical backdrop. Its effect is much more nuanced and presents an opportunity for prolonged and poignant contemplation that burrows much deeper than the brief time I was able to spend with it. The diversity of the space and those that use it is integral to what this installation is ultimately able to do.

In regards to materials, the artists combine a kind of industrial aesthetic that borrows from the space’s architecture and a softer, nostalgic core buoyed by shapes and objects of childhood play. The dull metal of the kites’ aluminum chassis, bracketed and bolted together in echo of the metal frames of the windows above, is balanced against thousands of glinting marbles in transparent tubes. Marbles, like the kites these objects take after, are the realm of a child’s interests and preoccupations. Positioned as the material heart of each kite shape, the marbles sustain the overall objects and further integrate them into the space through the subtle catch and recolor of light that filters down. The thousands of marbles, end to end in their tubes, add a subtle complexity that begins to move them beyond the logic of appearances to other spaces.

Like in a daydream, these kites emerge from a logical place outside of the reality of their installation. In their strangeness and even the unfeasibility of their material, as objects they allow the viewer to enter someplace else, a place where reality and all its traumas is potentially assuaged by childhood’s simpler concerns.

As an installation the work exists in more than one kind of space. Space plays a heightened role here, not just because that is the nature of installations, but the broader implications of the complex hybridization of the particulars of the building in relation to its uses. The work exists on a threshold, a literal and figurative lobby between the outside world and the building’s decidedly non-art interior. The larger lobby area of the hospital complex is open and breezy. Light pours in across the gently slopping walls from a plethora of windows and glass ceilings.

The ground and first floors are essentially contiguous, broken only by a mezzanine that meanders though the building’s several pavilions. Vitrines that contain an array of sculptural objects, from industrial assemblages to brightly painted folksy woodcarvings, are interspersed along walls also hung with prints and paintings. It might be easy to forget that just beyond these calm and quiet places, separated by only a few walls, are the linoleum-tiled floors of narrow hallways that branch off to patients’ rooms and surgical suites. Yet even in the midst of the hospital’s less publicly accessible interior, artwork is likewise displayed for the same purpose as in its lobbies and pavilions. Not cold and clinical, this is ultimately a place for health and healing aided by the collaborative effort of many artists and their work.

Such thoughts are not lost on the staff, children, or families who sit in these art-filled lobbies as a respite, if only temporarily, from the anxieties and realities of sickness so close at hand. It is in this way that the effect of Strecker’s and Medwedeff’s installation is most acute. This isn’t traditional art space, though there is still art here. Instead, art and people share the space in a more symbiotic way. While I was in the first floor lobby gazing up at the metal-framed kites and seeing how the light diffused through their hundreds of marbles, two women in scrubs sat at a low table in the corner and played a card game.

In many ways, my visit was uncommon. This installation is more an element of the ebbs and flows of the hospital’s daily life than something to be specially singled out and visited on its own. Yet even for someone who might only spend a few minutes gazing up at the work, it offers an opportunity for wonder and contemplation. There is still the potential for meditation in its presence even for such a short encounter, a fact that the artists seem to have consciously allowed to guide the design and implementation of the installation. In this space, the short-term and long-term are both offered as opportunities for healing.

Downstairs, the small circular sitting room where the first kite begins its journey was empty as well. From here, the kites seem to rise up into the brightly lit atmosphere above. Far away I heard the murmurs and footsteps of people coming and going. This mixed with the gentle humming of a TV that displayed a video game’s idle menu screen, another kind of lobby open to be taken up and used by someone in need of a distraction. It strikes me that this is the reality of Exuberance! and its presence here. In a place that needs to be something beyond the harsh realities of life and death, a meditation on childhood’s easy slip into wonder is a welcome offering.

Arts

Memorial in Process

Carleton Wing’s statement on “Sharing Time and Space,” the exhibition currently up at MS Rezny Studio Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky, calls it an “exchange.” As the title also implies, this is something shared. On its surface this is readily apparent: here Wing and Paolo Dal Prá engage in a dialogue even across the gulf between life and death. But the objects also stake out their own positions and their own conversation. The cross between the materials and the bodies of work is also an exchange, one that can even speak apart from the intentions of artist, gallery, or viewer. This is where things become more complicated. Set up together, the works work things out amongst themselves.

‘Sharing Time and Space’, Installation view, MS Rezny Studio Gallery

At first the juxtaposition of crisp digital collages with rough wood assemblages, rustic clay figures, and heavy dark paintings comes across as uneven and jarring. Yet there is a sense that despite differences in form and material an animated conversation is taking place and affinities are being forged. Wing and Prá’s works are tied together in ways beyond the inconveniences of their contrasting mediums. In a way these works exist like a single thing, each object a part that contributes its specialized function to the organism as a whole. The exchange is symbiotic.

This is one way that the works fill in each other’s gaps. Separately, Prá’s sculptures, paintings, and drawings seem to be disintegrating. But their fragmented appearance is not really a product of being purposefully unfinished or aesthetically rustic. Instead this is the spirit of their “primitivism,” as if they are objects found, compiled, and now left to weather away. Prá’s works come across like some distant memory, a trace or a vestige of some half-remembered experience. The haziness and roughness of Prá’s paintings and sculptures feels like the melding of different realities. A painting like Figure, showing the curvature of the back of a human form breaking across a mottled surface, is like an image whose overall clarity comes at the expense of more specific details. The object itself and its forgotten source trying to push itself back to the surface meld together as one appears to wear away and reveal the other

Following after this same comparison to memory and its workings, Prá’s sculptures are likewise in the midst of a breaking-down. Their disintegrations are much more literal however. They take place in the physical form and materiality of the objects themselves. This nudges them beyond the realm of art objects to that of real things with a real stake in life and death. Inside of the aptly titled Figure are metal and springs, the guts and bones of things with real presence in the world. These objects become more logical and their existence more necessary as they take on a more vital character. The more this vitalism grows the more intertwined these works become.

In this sense there is also a somewhat sinister current that runs underneath and between these works. Where at first they appear to be starkly separate, they are bound together by the unpredictability of anonymity and autonomy. Together they hint at something outside of what can be seen but which regardless looks out and sees. In the case of Wing’s collages, there is a literality to the form he employs. In the sense that each one plays at being a model of the universe, the radiation from the center is in, out, and infinite. Yet they also hint at an almost conscious presence that peers out through the rapid circulation of the mandala form. Like the eye of a storm, the supposed peace at the center of these mandalas barely masks the fear and anxiety of what their forms in fact model.

This is where Wing’s mandalas really set themselves apart. Beyond their mundane source imagery (birds, prawns, onions), Wing’s mandalas are expansive even as they appear to shrink into the limits of their centers. More than attractive designs they are like eyes that look out from each little pinpoint. In the middle of each mandala, the design is pulverized into the smallest and sharpest possible extremity. The more abstract mandalas pull strongest toward the oblivion of their cores. Muskrat Jaw Secular Mandala and Shell Secular Mandala begin on their fringes as recognizable objects but quickly melt into carousels of frantic and chopped up lines and colors. The complexity of the designs ultimately breaks down into the simplicity of the point. Yet this simplicity is misleading. Through the static center the universe comes roaring through.

Paolo Dal Prá, ‘Horse’, 2017

So this conversation between artists and artworks is quite complex. Initial separation between the objects is bridged by the presence of a vital force that operates seemingly beyond human control. It is interesting that so many of Prá’s figures appear to be blind. But while they are eyeless or with eyes blank and unfocused, they still seem to look out. Even more, placed next to sharply gazing mandalas they are added a profound sense of penetrating sight. Together these works exist as the more unnerving viscera of existence. The universe stares back wildly through the centers of Wing’s swirling and anxious circles and Prá’s mysterious and half-completed figures. When the ghoulish decrepitude of Prá’s Horse plays against the cold prickly apparatuses of Wing’s Machine Part from Tower Bridge, London Secular Mandala, their combined effect is uncomfortable and uncanny. But even here life also flashes in triumph.

In the end it is a fitting memorial. What better place is there to celebrate than within art itself with all its contradictions and persistent questions? Here we are confronted with art as both mute and static objects and something much more active, unrestrained, and messily unresolved.

Arts

Dredging Memory and Disaster

As its name implies, Alison Saar’s Breach, currently on display at the UK Art Museum, offers insight into the collective memory of tragedy through ruptures in the narrative strands of history that are equally lyrical and horrifying.

While an artist-in-residence in New Orleans in 2010, Saar’s experience in the still-ravaged city, five years after hurricane Katrina, provided the initial impetus for a body of work that investigates the historical and cultural linkages between disaster and African-American experience. The works in Breach draw from an event nearly eighty years before Katrina, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. Saar’s works attempt to explore the way this disaster, like Katrina, had an obscenely disproportionate effect on poor African Americans. Most African Americans were prevented from evacuating affected areas, forced to seek refuge on levees, and were forcibly conscripted in rebuilding efforts. The long-term effects of this disaster and its outcomes were not simply material, but had broad and enduring implications on the shared cultural experiences of African Americans.

Alison Saar, Breach, 2016, installation view.

Entering the main gallery, the walls are lined with portraits whose figures, their eyes pupil and iris-less, stare out at the audience in the throes of ecstasy and terror. Water rises around them, they gather up possessions above their heads as their bodies, some clothed and some nude, are variously submerged in the tide. Many of Saar’s works feature charcoaled images on found objects such as sugar sacks, denim scraps, drawers, and trunks, that dually function as physical objects and images and so take on iconic and even fetishized importance within Saar’s visual lexicon. Not unlike the practice of her mother, artist Betye Saar, Alison Saar’s assemblages blur the distinctions between memory and experience embodied in physical objects extracted from practical use and installed in the gallery.

Alison Saar, Breach, 2016.

In Breach (2016), the exhibition’s namesake and centerpiece, Saar hammered together tin ceiling tiles to form a life-size figure crowned with possessions saved from floodwaters. The figure, drawn from the mythological imagery of Greece and the African Diaspora, becomes an entirely new mythic sign, one though which Saar attempts to represent history as embodied experience.

Alison Sare, Hades D.W.P. II, 2016.

In fact, all of the works in the exhibition display direct traces of black bodily experience of disaster. Beyond the Great Flood and Hurricane Katrina, works like Hades D.W.P. II (2016) explore other systemic breakdowns that have disproportionally affected African American communities, namely the recent Flint, MI water crisis.

A shelf displays five large glass containers that hold vile looking liquids, eerily lit, whose fronts are etched with black body parts. The etched figures appear to drown in their glass enclosures, an effect that recalls both the violence of enslavement and the misery of black experience in light of persistence of racism and poverty. Saar’s works, that blend and blur the distinctions between both media and bodily experience, portray these recurring motifs of racist subjugation in a frank and visceral way. Muddled with mythological significance, words like “Hades,” “Lethe,” or “Mami Wata,” an African water spirit, tinge the works with a cosmological gravity that penetrates deep into the present. Death and suffering are present in the multitudinous signs Saar deftly weaves and layers together.

Alison Saar, Muddy Water Mambo, 2015.

The exhibition, split into two main spaces, establishes the content of Saar’s works beyond their physical presence, but extended into history and its practice. Saar draws on both the experience of the Great Flood and the effect it had on black culture, as it imbibed art and music in the 1930s and beyond with the traces of the Flood’s disastrous effect on black consciousness. Saar also reflects these traces back onto her works as well. Sluefoot Slide (2015) and Muddy Water Mambo (2015) both feature black figures, painted on bits of sacks, cloth, and denim, dancing and gesticulating in rising water, their ambivalent reactions to a disaster unfolding around them perhaps not uncommon to communities who have long suffered violence and oppression. Such ambivalence often manifested itself in the music of the Blues, traces of which can be found in Saar’s imagery.

In the second gallery, a film plays on a screen, where Saar narrates historical accounts of the Great Flood interspersed with explosive footage of her studio practice. Like the musicians and artists of the 1930s, Saar also contributes to the slippery space where art, history, and experience mingle. Printed works, which constitute a large portion of the exhibition, exemplify this practice. In fact, a majority of the works might be classed as prints, as they present the viewer with surfaces imprinted with the historical and bodily experiences of African American communities devastated by watery disaster.

Alison Saar, mami wata (or how to know a goddess when you see one), 2016.

Another kind of narrative chronicle hangs across from the screen where the film plays. mami wata (or how to know a goddess when you see one) (2016) takes the form of an artist’s book, the pages a single long sheer sheet that flows out goddess’s mouth. It is this speech, the markings of experience on history and culture, that Saar’s work so forcefully elucidates.

Saar’s success is not just in the works themselves, but in the way she investigates the language of black cultural experience that has been marked through a history of violence and destruction. Standing in front of the monumental Breach, one cannot help feel the weight of both the colossal load the figure bears and the significance of history embodied and marked on its surface, transformed into an icon, and speaking its experience.

Photo Credit: Joel Darland

Arts

Real Virtuality

As is often the case, the appearance of new technology requires a reassessment of the ways art and art practice are defined. For HVREdev, a Lexington-based cooperative of game designers, developers, and artists, VR hardware offers opportunities to explore the intersections of technology, video games and art.

Part of the Studio 300 Digital Arts and Music Festival which showcased such projects in venues across Lexington, the Morlan Gallery at Transylvania University presented Senses of Place: VR featuring works by members of HVREdev and artists Dima Strakovsky and Richie Hoagland. These collaborative efforts attempt to push the boundaries of space, meaning, artist and audience.

Screen Shot from Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities, Photo Credit: Lydia Emeric

Attending a recent interactive performance of HVRdev’s Dreams project, one couldn’t help considering the somewhat tired question, “Are video games art?” While the ten “dreams” appear more akin to interactive art installations cross-pollinated with tech demos, they provide a means for the viewer to investigate the limits of the medium. The dreams run the gamut from enclosed rooms with collections of interactive objects such as the toy room of Dustin Peerce’s Toys, or a child’s bedroom in Zach Hunt, Shea Rembold, and Shylo Shepherd’s Shadow Play to more objective-driven experiences.

HVRdev’s Dreams project, Photo Credit, Joel Darland

Christopher Royse, Rembold, and Alexander Leverone’s Yennen’s Tale and Christona Hillard, Royse, Leverone, and Hunt’s SPAace resemble more traditional role-playing or puzzle games. Still others might be compared to rhythm or sound games, such as Rembold, Hunt, and Shepard’s bubble-popping game Bubbles or Sol Mates, a kind of life simulation and soundscape hybrid created by Royse, Hunt, Leonard Wedderburn, Vincent Mattingly, Rembold, and Leverone. Donning an HTC Vive headset, the viewer uses a wand-like controller to explore these experiences by entering rooms, touching and moving various objects, or observing situations that play out in response to viewer’s presence in the virtual environment.

Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities, Photo Credit: Lydia Emeric

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Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities, Photo Credit: Lydia Emeric

One of the more fascinating aspects of this project lies in the method of its presentation. As the viewer looks around the virtual gallery space of Dreams, a sort of impossibly shaped room with ramps, high angled ceilings, columns and other features, various objects are encountered. Each dream is represented by one of these objects, metonymic models of their respective experiences. Pointing the wand at a floating series of geometric objects and pressing the wand’s trigger transports the viewer into SPAce. The viewer encounters a long hallway that opens up to room full of large objects including a candy dispenser, perfume bottles, and a crate full of jam jars. Interacting with the objects changes elements of the room, an effect the developers describe as similar to the 1990s computer point-and-click puzzle game Myst.

Back in the gallery lobby, interacting with a slightly open freestanding doorway takes the viewer into Shadow Play, a bedroom where the viewer, sitting on a canopy bed, can open and close curtains and turn on and off various lights revealing comforting, strange, and even sinister objects that might inhabit a child’s dream world. While each of the games can be experienced passively, active participation produces a slew of diverse experiences, interactivity being an integral component of medium and fertile ground for investigating the ways these games bend and redefine the traditional limits of the relationship between artist, audience, and artwork.

Very Rad Vaporwave Racing Virtual Reality Addition, Photo Credit: Joel Darland

The question of the project’s artistic value, while not altogether explicit in the form or content of the individual games, is addressed through its muddling of real and virtual space. HVREdev’s ten dreams are accessed through a sort of virtual museum: each game represented by an object that, when interacted with, transports the viewer into the discrete virtual space of the individual dream. This virtual space is further nested with the space of the Morlan Gallery, which is also extended into the virtual worlds of Dreams.

And beyond that, the project is available for download via Google Play, and can be experienced anywhere and anytime using an android smartphone and Google Cardboard, a stripped-down VR headset. Though this iteration of the experience limits the viewer’s ability to move within the virtual spaces of Dreams, the functionality is identical. In a sense, the presentation of both Dreams and Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities in the gallery helps to contextualize the medium, in the traditional sense of its being an object on display in a gallery setting. But the real space of the gallery is only a starting point for both projects to explore the possibilities of art in the virtual realm.

Documentation of "Virtual Realities" performance. Richie Hoagland and Dima Strakovsky. Plus, parents and children.

Of course, the debate over video games and their relation to art is not new, but the appearance of and availability VR hardware, though still somewhat price-prohibitive, is providing a means for investigating the question directly as it relates to art as an encounter with art objects in a specific space. The difference here is that artists and developers like those in HVREdev no longer require the space of the traditional gallery or museum to legitimize their own art-making practices. Instead, they explore and innovate within their own virtual spaces.

The fact that Dreams is encountered both in the real space of the gallery and in its own self-contained virtual gallery lends both an urgency and opportunity to redraw the boundaries of art production to include a more a diverse host of people and practices. Even those that might not consider themselves artists in the traditional sense are using new media and technology to collaborate and produce compelling and challenging works of art.

To download and experience HVREdev’s “Dreams” visit https://goo.gl/3KHRkR or search “Dreams: a Virtual Reality Art Exhibit” on the Google Play store. The project requires an Android smartphone and the Google Cardboard app and headset.

Arts

Small is More Than Just a State of Mind

­­­In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart describes the miniature as a special type of object that speaks to the nostalgia and fantasy inherent in both childhood and history. The artworks included in notBIG(4), now on display at the M.S. Renzy Studio and Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky, typify these notions. The exhibition, juried by Transylvania University art professor Kurt Gohde, presented its entrants with only one stipulation: small scale. Working in sizes of twelve by twelve inches and smaller, artists submitted works that explore the notion that, in Mr. Gohde’s words, “bigger may not be better.”

A quick assessment of the works reveals a somewhat conservative approach on the part Mr. Gohde. Of the forty-five works, nearly half can be classified as portraits or landscapes. The miniature, especially in painted form, has a fairly consistent art historical track record. Painted portraits and small natural scenes were the affordable fine art choices of middle class collectors before the advent and wide popularization of photography in the mid nineteenth century. In a way, the exhibition pays homage to the historical miniature. Thankfully, it isn’t burdened by nostalgia for the past, but its works engage with nostalgia in order to explore and elucidate its presuppositions and effects.

The more appealing of the works in notBIG(4) represent a creative approach to the twelve inch by twelve inch limitation placed on their scale. In Mr. Gohde’s notes, he mentions one of several considerations in his selection process, that the works “NEED or TAKE ADVANTAGE OF the small scale” requirement placed on entrants. In my opinion, it is the more sculptural works that best exemplify this exploration of the exhibition’s focus on spatial limitations. Several works, including ceramic, wood, and mixed media assemblages, occupy and explore a miniature space rather than simply conform to a miniature scale. Like dollhouse models or children’s toys, they present the viewer with the possibility that within such a seemingly limited space there might exist whole worlds, imaginative or otherwise.

Rebecca DeGroot, Strain, Image courtesy of the artist

Rebecca DeGroot’s Strain is reminiscent of both Louise Bourgeois’ mammoth cast bronze spider-like sculptures and a piece of fine walnut furniture. While it could be both or neither, its mysterious nature, perhaps more akin to the micro than the macroscopic presents a fantasy grounded in reality. Similarly, one of exhibition’s honorable mentions, Critz Campbell’s Single Cloud, recalls both a wooden maquette and decorative period artifact. Again, it is a fantastical take on a natural phenomenon communicated through the imagery of both a child’s toy and technical model.

Critz Campbell, Single Cloud, Image courtesy of the artist

Another honorable mention, Rene Hales’ hazy and dreamy photo-encaustic Backyard Woods, is equal parts photographic record and pictorial fantasy. The encaustic’s wax  transforms the flat picture into an object with literally and metaphorical depth. In fact, several other works employ the use of encaustic, an application of wax mixed with resin, to create the illusions of the dreamy haze of age. Derek Ball’s Everyday Day, Every Hour (C1) offers a digital take on this aesthetic of translucent fogginess. The densely layered photographic object is equal parts knowable and mysterious.

Derek Ball, Everyday Day, Every Hour (C1), Image courtesy of the artist

Among the more traditional works in the exhibition, those of portraits landscapes, Mr. Ghode has selected pieces that run the gamut from Clint Wood’s City Corner, a colorful and somewhat flattened rendering of an anonymous street and its buildings to the nearly abstracted natural effects of Karen Spears’ Floating Foliage.

Clint Wood, City Corner, Image courtesy of the artist

Karen Spears, Floating Foliage, Image courtesy of the artist

Similarly among the portraits are several striking explorations of sizing and scaling images of the face. Irene Mudd’s Joan and Todd Fife’s Ghost Man both treat the details of the human likeness like pixelizations, though composed respectively from yarn and the stains and smudges of graphite and coffee. Still recognizable, the features point to the difficulties of certain media to accurately replicate and render the human image.

Tom Pfannerstill, Crushed Starbucks Cup, Image courtesy of the artist

Allison Tierney, 10/11/2015, Image courtesy of the artist

Of course, there are other works in the show that don’t necessarily treat miniaturization as simply an issue of size or scale. Tom Pfannerstill’s Crushed Starbucks Cup is in actuality a finely detailed painted wood sculpture that both elevates and eternalizes street trash as art object. What appears as stains and damage are the specific details of a meticulously crafted and considered totem of the vastness of urban waste and global consumerism. Likewise, Allison Tierney’s 10/11/2015, a wood panel layered with latex paint that resembles the leftover scraps of a painted canvas, is both painted object and paint as object. Like Pfannerstill, Tierney offers much more to the viewer than what is simply visible in her painting, and recalls Marilyn Minter’s early photorealistic painted floors and sculpted polaroids, playing with the discrepancies between what is seen and what is experienced.

Sean Ware, With Clouds in Sight, Image courtesy of the artist

The work awarded the exhibition’s best in show, a painting by Sean Ware titled With Clouds in Sight, seems an overly safe choice, considering its subject matter is neither a unique nor particularly engaging mediation on the miniature schema. While one of the more technically impressive works on display, it lacks the specificity that the miniature itself implies, that of the somewhat fantastic and nostalgic possibilities of they might contain. There are more interesting and fruitful works for the viewer here, works that eagerly attempt to find purpose in their relative smallness.

In the end, the exhibition and its space, though itself small and somewhat cluttered, allows the works their own room to breathe, and helps to further encourage viewers to consider the individual worlds they represent. While not everything on display succeeds in expanding and developing the rhetoric of smallness, the dollhouse specificity of many of these miniatures, especially the sculptural works, makes this exhibition seem much larger than it appears. The opportunity to enter, inhabit, and participate in the fantasies of self-contained and self-sufficient worlds gives notBIG(4) enough of a reason to be seen.