Perambulating the Bounds

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A new Watkins Senior show going up

The Watkins senior shows are always worth checking out, usually coming in groups at the end of the semester. This weekend Mahlea Jones, Debbie Kraski, and Elizabeth Moore open their show. I've seen a few of Mahlea's pieces over the years (and missed several chances to see her work in Off the Wall shows), and have always liked the look of them. The description in the press release talks about "using the allure of female visual and fragrant adornments." If it's not a typo (fragments of adornments or something like that), it sounds like she's doing something interesting like working in olfactory elements (like that Soares piece at Cheekwood with the lilies entombed in it). I think I've seen Debbie Kraski's work before, not sure, and pretty sure I haven't seen Elizabeth Moore's stuff. But from the PR description, she's unapologetically talking about God and grace, and I always want to see if people can really work with that and not end up with something trite, that basically invokes faith in place of craft and conceptualization in the production of art work.

The show opens on Friday (the 20th), the reception is 6-8.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ganesh and Kumaresh

Just got back from a lovely concert at Sri Ganesha, Ganesh and Kumaresh, two brothers who both play violin. They’ve got an interesting thing going, integrating lots of Western elements—playing techniques, harmony, and counterpoint. Some pieces were very traditional, based on Carnatic song forms, but others sounded nearly like Western classical music. The brothers are both extremely virtuosic—they can play really fast, in tandem, and seemed to be having a great time. They made very effective use of short, abrupt figures, and they were accompanied by both mridangam and ghattam, so there was a lot of energy. In certain pieces they would use surprisingly Western techniques like having one violin accompany the other with a little pizzicato figure, something I don’t think you ever hear in Indian music, or harmonizing in thirds. Some of the ragas they chose had many characteristics of a major scale, and they seemed to play that up. On one piece where the percussion dropped out, the violin lines at times sounded like Ralph Vaughan Williams, say The Lark Ascending. It was something about the way some lines would end downwards, and the quiet, delicate fast passages slipped into this lyrical piece.

Sankaran Mahadevan says the brothers have not studied Western music, just picked up ideas from listening and working on it on their own. Well, it seems to work. Their cross-over use of Western elements in a fundamentally Indian context worked a lot better than what you usually get when you go the other direction and use ragas in a classical, pop or jazz piece. And even when the notes and counterpoint sounded very Western, the structure was still Indian. Pieces still ended with a typical sequence of gestures—a fast passage repeated several times, then a languid line, and maybe a final punch from the percussion. However, at the end of the day I think their more traditional pieces were more moving. The Westernized figures have an abstract quality that shaved off a little of the soulfulness.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bennett Bean

Hearing that Bennett Bean was going to be at the Temple Arts Festival this weekend set off some serious nostalgia. In the 80s he was the happening potter—I remember people in the crafts world saving their pennies to get their hands on one of his pots. As I recall, and I might have this history wrong, he was one of the first people to make pots that were flashy, all bright colors and paint, and especially the little squares of gold leaf on them. The prevailing aesthetics of ceramics had been restrained, earth-toned surfaces, descended from the orderly Japanese-inspired aesthetic of someone like Bernard Leach or the rough-hewn action-pots of Peter Voulkos. Bean’s pieces had real eye candy quality, which in retrospect was very ‘80s. Probably too 80s. I’m more drawn to rougher, more tactile surfaces, and to pieces where glazes and the reactions of surface materials provide texture and pattern directly.

For example, the favorite piece in my collection is by Charles Bound (an American based in Wales). It’s got an asymmetrical shape, red glaze the color of red clay dirt sticks in flakes to the outside, which is covered with heavy grains of what looks like melted salt. All of these elements produce a continuously shifting variety of color and texture on surface, and give it a strong appearance, although the pot is relatively small and the walls thin. But it also seems fragile, as if parts will fall off in flakes, like the baking powder on the surface of Rusty Johnston’s paintings or on Becky Wehmer’s glass pieces. But so far the piece has stayed intact, and I’ve had it a number of years.

If you are going to the Temple Arts Festival, and especially if you are thinking of spending some money, check out Susan Maakestad’s paintings. (Here’s a link to an essay I wrote for the catalogue of a show she had last year.) Her work is lovely and complex.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Amanda Dillingham at Sarratt

Amanda Dillingham is showing work at Sarratt right now. The set of pieces constitutes incremental development from work she’s shown previously, although this may be the best chance I’ve had to see the range of ideas she is playing with. The show also includes Ben Matthew’s paintings of faux 19th century posters and advertisements for improbable products like Mick’s Vacation Helmets, which transport you to a Wyoming mountainside thanks to what looks like a WWI vintage gas mask. His pieces go pretty well with Amanda’s but it’s her work I want to talk about.

Start with Amanda’s basic vocabulary: communion wafers, flowers, images of women (their bodies), bees/honey/honey combs. The elements in this limited set bring in several big phenomena and the relations between them—the church, women, the body, eating, making and producing food, self-sacrifice and self-denial, fruition, beauty. Self-sacrifice, the celestial dinner, these things mean one thing to the Church but something completely different when you bring women’s bodies into the picture. And make it clear that they are part of the story all along, even when erased.

This show has pieces or parts of pieces seen elsewhere, but I think there’s some new stuff too. To start on one wall, there’s a honey comb pattern made from communion wafers—the white, thin, tasteless lozenges—that Amanda has drawn flowers on in red ink. She’s used these wafers several times now, tattooing decoration and variability into something nearly featureless and almost perfectly uniform. On either side of the wafers are arrays of holy cards of female saints, everything except the flesh scraped away, meaning the cards are mostly blank except for faces, sometimes the hair, hands, and occasional feet or toes. This erasure on the cards goes to show how thoroughly the female body has to be kept under wraps. So many female serve as models of objects of devotion, but their bodies have to be sequestered for fear of breaking the spell.

Next there’s a sculpture of a shrouded female figure, called Mistress of Bees as if it were a non-canonical saint. It is made from beeswax molded into a large honeycomb pattern. The honeycomb pattern rules out detailed modeling of the figure or face, making it that much more ghostly. The statue has been drenched in honey, and dead bees and roses lie at its feet. It’s unappetizing, but still gives the idea of an overripe lusciousness.

On the next pedestal is a piece called Impregnated Host, which is a pretty literal description of what’s going on. It’s a pile of bread balls apparently made by treating communion wafers with yeast and baking them—un-unleavening them. The yeast makes the flat wafer rise and swell up, and in the baking process they got a toasty color. The point of communion wafers seems to be to make something to be eaten with no sensory pleasure. Turning the wafers into little buns makes them almost seem like something you would want to eat. Also, as they puff up the cruciform indentations on the wafers become more pronounced. They’ve been despoiled, taken out of their pristine, unleavened, virginal, perfect state into a state of fecundity. But it’s also the state bread is meant to have.

Finally, there’s the video of Lesley Patterson-Mark, Heather Spriggs Thompson, and I think Amanda’s sister each in turn eating a flower. This was the focal point of Amanda’s installation for the Judy Chicago project at Vandy last year. The footage is reversed, so they are actually shown issuing forth a flower, bit by bit, from their mouths. The women all go through the process differently. Lesley grimaces and lifts her eyebrows, mostly pulls the rose petals out of her mouth one or a few at a time. Heather is more deadpan, but she attacks the carnation stem directly with her mouth. Amanda’s sister (if I’ve got that right) also plucks petals from her mouth to make a tulip. It’s a process of generating beauty by reverse consumption, consumption with the pleasure element removed.

The common elements – women, flowers, bees, honeycombs, communion wafers – create a dense symbolic space which invokes all sorts of words and images. The Lord’s Supper. Take, eat, this is my body. Hail Mary, full of grace. The queen bee, entombed in the hive to be fed and reproduce. The cells of a honeycomb.

The other presence here is Will ClenDening. Amanda’s erased holy cards seem to me a tribute to her dear friend, who died less than a year ago in a motocycle accident in Dickson County. One of Will’s major pieces involved scratching off the printing from playing cards, leaving ghost cards and a pile of shavings. Amanda’s using the same technique here. It’s the best sort of tribute—look Will, here’s something I learned from you, but here’s what I’m going to do with it. I’m listening but not mimicking.

I wonder if she held onto the shavings for some future use.

Amanda’s in graduate school right now, and I wondered if this show would present more of break with her previous work. I don’t think it does, although it may be a fuller picture. I bet the results of her grad school growth aren’t ready yet (I could just ask). There can be a surprising lag between what you see and what the artist who made it is currently thinking about.