“What is art?”
This a slippery, skittish, even smug question – but a good one to ponder. I think one of the defining qualities of art is “transformation.” Art is alchemy that creates something new from raw materials, whether that is the birth of a physical object or a nudge into a fresh perspective on the way we see things.
With that in mind, three new exhibitions offer worthwhile explorations of art and its transformative powers.
“Objects for Objects: Work by Venetia Dale” is a compact show at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Ave. Dale requires you to slow down and pause over the details of her richly textured, lustrous, metallic sculptural groups. Silvery woven webs shine on the wall, like postmodern chain mail or something between a weapon and a garment, touched by a pewter-preferring Midas.
Let yourself be taken in by the combination of varied surfaces, wobbly contours and machinist precision in the crisscross of lines. Then, have a look at the photographs on the wall for the backstory of where these lovely items originated. If Dale’s re-imagining and transformation of ugly, lowbrow items like Dollar General shopping baskets into such graceful objects isn’t visionary, I’m not sure what is.
If there is a thorn of disappointment, it is in not being able to see some pieces as closely as desired. One can’t get close enough to drink in the detail of sculptures on the floor without sitting on the floor. And this exhibition doesn’t seem designed to be that interactive.
The loveliest lingering thought from Dale’s work is in the potential for transformation: ugly ducklings of plastic, consumer utilitarianism are refined into swans of high art. A parallel manipulation is found in the bones, feathers and hair used by Martha Glowacki in “Private Science,” which recently opened at Inova/Kenilworth, 2155 N. Prospect Ave.
Glowacki’s show opens with the two-dimensional series “Natural Philosophies” (2005). Astronomical diagrams of a dark blue sky are punctuated by stars, floating animal skeletons and fine cursive script over a firmly measured grid. The grid is an interesting device. It provides a way to get one’s arms around all this mystical stuff, to organize and figure it all out.
Multi-object installations and shadow boxes dominate the exhibition, inviting the viewer for a dip into natural history and poetry. The arrangements are visually delicate, with deceptively strong materials such as hair and bones covered with black and silver paint in gothic, romantic splendor. Glowacki inserts this raw, visceral stuff into fancy and elegance. Yet, these pieces sidestep their messy origins, creating a slightly removed psychic space for contemplation.
“Private Science” is running concurrently at Inova/Kenilworth with an exhibition of large paintings by Greg Klassen titled “Air.” Whichever exhibition you start with, going from one to another is a slightly jarring experience. Chalk it up to the diversity of contemporary art on the scene.
Klassen shows a series collectively called “Perishable Atlas,” and on that note, you may adopt the map of your choice: landscape, undersea topography or the world seen via microscope and petri dish.
Standing in the center of the gallery is one place to start, but go up close, within inches or so of the surface of the painting. The tooth of the canvas comes into focus and the residual dance of paint, applied quickly, deftly or softly. Breathy dots suddenly seem miles away as eye and mind give in to a sense of atmospheric perspective, or the perception that things faint and fuzzy are far away. Purposeful or a happy improvisation, it’s hard to say. But the variation in gradient creates space.
Klassen’s color palettes play off each other in small ensembles of visual harmony. One especially luminous work derives its energy from a bright yellow swath, like a solar flare that all but obliterates the pale, gentle gray beneath. The arc of the deepest gold is like a diver, created out of molten color, about to plummet.
How is it that a rippling wave of yellow paint caught on a canvas can invoke simultaneously the radiant power of the sun and the gravitational weight of a diver? Alas, these are mere suggestions. Like looking at clouds, viewers bring their own imagination and baggage to each. Klassen is rather coy. He implies shapes and things, but not definitely. Paintings are full of light, but without the counterpart of shadow. One piece includes dots of sand on the canvas. A real landscape, a day at the beach? Klassen lets you wonder. He has begun the transformation, now you complete it.