The Sum of The Parts
Impressive show by a rookie curator focuses on repetition
Published: March 14, 2012
The Sum of the Parts, the newest exhibition at Maryland Art Place, highlights artists who create their work “through the cumulative products of repetitive processes and actions,” according to exhibition literature. In the case of the four East Coast artists showcased here, that repetition is achieved through either highly meticulous craftsmanship or literal copying, with sculptural forms cast from the same mold. The intentional redundancy of the pieces creates a semblance of simplicity particularly, perhaps, for an audience primed as we are by the forces of mass production. But while, in general, accessible, the work is not simplistic, and it easily might have been, for The Sum of the Parts is the work of a fledgling curator.
For a decade, Maryland Art Place has provided an annual rite of passage for aspiring curators. MAP’s Curators’ Incubator Program, now in its 10th year, mentors novices as they move from exhibition concept to execution, complete with catalog. Last year, for the first time, just one curator—Nate Larson—was chosen, rather than several, and MAP has continued in that vein this year. The chosen curator, artist Amy Boone-McCreesh, thus had the challenge of filling all three rooms of the gallery space. She’s done so with aplomb.
The most immediately captivating pieces in the exhibition are those made by Maryland Institute College of Art grad Emily Barletta. Barletta uses inherently repetitive processes—crocheting and sewing—to create her work. In a series of untitled pieces composed of red thread stitched through paper and framed by white space, a great deal of patience and old-fashioned handiwork result in strikingly varied abstract “drawings.” “Untitled (10)” features rows of cross-stitches, replicated by the dozens. At the bottom of the frame, a cursive scrawl of stitches overlays these regiments of tight Xs; the effect is disturbing, like a roll of concertina wire unraveling across a trimmed lawn. “Untitled (6),” in which no one stitch crosses another, has an entirely different feel. Here tiny stitches follow one another in soothing waves, evoking the lines of a rake in a bed of sand.
Barletta’s artistic vocabulary—down to the limited reds, blues, and grays of her color palette—is borrowed directly from an age when working with yarn or thread meant woman’s work, utilitarian drudgery. Her pieces are not useful in the traditional sense, but they employ that old utilitarian tool—repetition—to create evocative art. Her large crocheted wall hangings, made solely of yarn, perhaps best demonstrate this. “Pelt” is a nestled conglomeration of convex crocheted red cups, each with a yawning hole in the middle. The piece has an organic feel, conjuring the nests of mud dauber wasps or barn swallows. And like those evolutionarily programmed creatures, Barletta has created enchanting complexity using time, toil, and the simplest of materials. The mere fact of her exertion imbues her pieces with a certain majesty, and the biological objects they tend to evoke—microbes, sea anemones, human organs—make them more beguiling yet.
Brooklyn artist Lauren Clay also creates her work by hand, though this is not immediately apparent because the lines are so perfect as to seem machine-made. Two of her pieces in The Sum of the Parts are playful wall sculptures, composed of hundreds of hanging strips of paper the shape and size of Popsicle sticks. In “Peggoty,” these strips are painted in smooth gradations of purple, and have a rubbery, tactile look. They drape over one another, like a waterfall as conceived by Jim Henson, flowing down to a base of angled forms where smaller pieces “splash” back up. The piece, unlike Barletta’s work, is utterly inorganic; it is, rather, dreamlike and lighthearted, though the result of intense labor.
A third piece, “Lonely Rainbow Picket Hoarding the Ten Thousand Things,” consists of a foam wedge painted a fluorescent salmon buttressed against a wall. A jumble of colorful, tightly packed geometric objects clusters beneath, protected or perhaps protecting, like a dam. These references to strength and shelter are perhaps an intentional homage. The catalog explains that the piece is a direct reference to pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago’s 1966 “Rainbow Pickett,” a minimalist work that featured a series of six colorful trapezoids leaning against a wall.
Like Clay’s “Ten Thousand Things,” Nikki Painter’s work represents a bit of a departure from the theme of the show. But with the exception of “Play,” a large installation that greets viewers as they enter the gallery, Painter’s pieces also lack the punch of the other works in the exhibition. The Virginia-based artist traffics in imagery associated with construction (or destruction), creating chaotic, kinetic scenes composed of geometries both representational and not so. While her work includes repetition of a sort—angles, frames, triangles, and rectangles are common elements, with curves nearly absent—it is not the dominant theme. Painter’s works on paper—there are 14 in the show—are primarily collage and mixed media, blending the checkerboard patterns, neon colors, and disorienting composition of Op Art with some of the three-dimensional trickery of M.C. Escher’s drawings. While expertly rendered, the pieces at times seem like the notebook doodles of a particularly talented teenager, perhaps on the tail end of an acid trip.
Painter’s room-size installation, composed of three separate “scenes,” has more resonance. Like her works on paper, the installation is heavily angular. Two of the scenes are made up of boxes, tiles, chunks of wood, and structures that evoke ladders, windows, fences, even, in one case, a stylized boat. These are all painted in monochrome grays and whites, with mirrored tiles replicating angles from below. Painted rays, dwindling to points as if to indicate perspective, add to the sense of depth in each scene, and the odd clash of order and disorder lead one to wonder, What happened here? What will happen? Meanwhile, a third scene in the middle of the room commands attention. It is similarly constructed, but painted in fluorescent yellows, oranges, greens, and pinks. As a result, it has a more dynamic feel, a jazzy scene caught in freeze frame. The candy colors evoke a collection of toys, with the two gray scenes in the background like the distant memory of such.
In contrast, Philadelphia artist Jerry Kaba’s pieces are characterized by clean, uncluttered lines. His “Outmoded” consists of a pile of identical crayon-like clay and rubber sticks about the size of fence posts. They lie discarded, the mysterious nodules at one end divorced from any useful context. The pile extends out into the gallery floor, as if reaching for something.
Kaba’s “Tom’s River 1952-1990” is one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition. Twenty-one bulbous yellow clay objects the size of fire hydrants stand in orderly rows on a bed of soil. They are all identical but for minute differences in the cracking of the clay. They immediately bring to mind the regimentation of industrial agriculture, the genetically identical rows of corn in a field, bred to be precisely the same height. The title drives the point home: Tom’s river, with all its burbling unpredictability, has been replaced by an equation.
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