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Cezanne @ Art Institute of Chicago

Right now in Chicago, there is probably more Cezzane under one roof than anywhere else in the world. The Art Institute of Chicago goes big with its special exhibitions, and its current offering of works by Cezanne is a beast of a show, comprising 80 paintings, 20 watercolors, two sketchbooks, and a smattering of pencil sketches, and together they demonstrate the artist’s stylistic and thematic breadth. This is Cezanne’s first American retrospective in 25 years, and it brings together works from collections in North and South America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. The show emphasizes Cezanne’s multigenerational appeal; lauded after his death as the “father of modern art,” his paintings (including many on display) were owned by well-known 19th and 20th-century artists, and his enduring reach extends to the present day.

CÈzanne Paul (1839-1906). Paris, musÈe d’Orsay.

Although Cezanne was never formally accepted into art school, he was firmly rooted in art historical tradition, and he studied the masters of the past. When he moved to Paris in 1861, he frequented the Louvre, which he once described as “an open book I am continually studying.” There, he studied and copied Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculptures. Several early graphite drawings on view demonstrate his ability to draw the figure in a classical, academic style. These tightly rendered drawings are contrasted in the same room with other early experimental works from the 1860s in which Cezanne applies the paint thickly, using only a palette knife to scribble in his subject. These early works are suggestive of a versatile style and artistic swagger.

Cezanne’s vision brought new life to the centuries-old genres of still life painting and landscape painting, and in his hands the two could become strikingly similar, as a room of his increasingly busy still life paintings demonstrates. There’s nothing “still” about his still-lifes. Thoroughly unburdened by any adherence to linear perspective, these counterintuitive canvasses seem to heave and buckle. Add into the mix a tactfully arranged patterned tablecloth replete with ridges, furrows, and crevices, and the result is tabletop topography.

Still Life with Apples; Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 – 1906); 1893–1894; Oil on canvas; 65.4 × 81.6 cm 25 3/4 × 32 1/8 in.

Paul Cezanne. The Basket of Apples, about 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

Although he studied in the great museums of Paris, Cezanne self-styled himself as a provincial artist. He was born and raised in Aix-en-Provence, and he frequently left Paris to paint the region, geographically defined by the imposing limestone Mont Sainte-Victoire– the location of a second-century Roman military victory and source of local pride. Some of Cezanne’s most recognizable paintings are the serialized studies he affectionately painted of the angular mountain, mostly executed during the last fifteen years of his life. This exhibit presents over a dozen studies and paintings of the mountain, and they represent some of Cezanne’s most daring works.  The individual brushstrokes of his paintings become an increasingly noticeable presence, and the clarity of the landscape dissolves into a mosaic of scrubbed-in patches of color. One of his aims was to “make the air palpable,” and in these paintings, he certainly succeeded. There isn’t any negative space in the most abstract of these paintings; the air itself is rendered with thick chunks of color. These paintings speak to Cezanne’s artistic philosophy, which held that a painting was complete not when it was finished in the conventional sense, but rather when it successfully achieved his personal artistic intent.

Paul Cezanne. Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, about 1887. The Courtauld Gallery, London. © Courtauld Gallery / Bridgeman Images

But even while Cezanne pushed the boundaries of abstraction, leading the charge toward modern art, this show makes it clear that he retained a deep affection for the art of the past. He produced many paintings crowded with frolicking or fighting nudes that acted as contemporary responses to the fleshy Baroque-era Gardens of Love and Bacchanals by the likes of Titian and Reubens. Cezanne’s Battle of Love, in which pairs of abstract nude figures naughtily tussle in a pastoral setting, directly echoes Titian’s 16th century Bacchanal of the Andrians.

The exhibition concludes with the largest and most realized of Cezanne’s Bather paintings, a subject he returned to throughout his life (other similar, smaller versions appear elsewhere in the show). It’s an idealized scene; the models were entirely products of his imagination, and Cezanne rendered the landscape to compliment and answer the composition and movement of the models. Stylistically, these abstracted figures are emphatically modern, and it’s easy to see why they appealed to artists like Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, all of whom once owned some of the paintings presently on these walls.

Paul Cezanne. Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), about 1894–1905. The National Gallery, London, purchased with a special grant and the aid of the Max Rayne Foundation, 1964.

Cezanne is sometimes described in print as a “painter’s painter.” Perhaps this is unfair since it suggests that the average person just won’t understand his work. But this exhibition gives non-experts plenty of reasons to like his art, whether for his relentlessly imaginative re-working of classical artistic tropes, or perhaps the sheer complexity of his still-life paintings. This exhibition demonstrates his artistic reach, and specialists and non-specialists alike will find the exhibit rewarding. The abundance of works on view amply demonstrates Cezanne’s indebtedness to the past, even as he challenged artistic conventions and boldly anticipated the art of the future.

Cezanne is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 5, 2022. 

Nick Doyle: Farmers and Reapers @ Reyes/Finn Gallery

Nick Doyle, Please Let me Go, 2022, collaged denim on panel, 90” x 125” (belt), 11” x 36” (lighter), 72” x 15” (spoon) All photos: Adam Reich

The perils and attractions of consumption driven by the dynamics of corporate greed—when what we are conditioned to want might just kill us–forms the theme of Nick Doyle’s current exhibition Farmers and Reapers at Reyes Finn, on view in the gallery from June 4 – July 16. Doyle has chosen deceptively beautiful images to lure us toward the revelation that we may be the unsuspecting victims of our own desires.

In his previous show with Reyes Finn, Paved Paradise, the artist examined and seemed to celebrate—or at least feel nostalgia for–the assumptions inherent in the American Dream of limitless expansion and endless possibility. But with Farmers and Reapers, his vision has sharpened and darkened to tell a cautionary tale about the perils of falling for the false promises of capitalism.   Or as Doyle says in his artist’s statement:

Today, as we experience an opioid epidemic, everything has become a drug.  Social media, advertisement, market research: all born out of attempts to create false desires in a population with no actual resolution to those desires, only a constant cycle of momentary satisfaction that intends on keeping us locked in a state of perpetual, hankering consumption.

Of course, Doyle’s subtle jeremiad wouldn’t resonate with his audience if the artworks he has created were not attractive.  And they are. His beautifully crafted and carefully constructed images of pretty flowers, shiny cutlery and glittering disco balls—even his wall-mounted portrait of a black garbage bag containing who-knows-what—are (sanctioned) pleasures for the eye, given force by their titles. Hence the disco ball is entitled Death Star, his lush bouquet of poppies is called A Siren’s Symphony. Even as we viscerally feel the attraction, we are brought up short by the artist’s ominous caveat.

Nick Doyle, Body at Rest, 2022, collaged denim on panel, 51” x 40”

 

Nick Doyle, Siren’s Symphony, 2022, collaged denim on panel, 95” x 89”

All except one of the artworks in this exhibition are handmade out of quotidian denim, the fabric of the common man and Doyle’s signature material. The artist has meticulously cut and laminated shapes reminiscent of paint-by-numbers kits to silhouettes made of shaped medium density panels. Individual pieces like Cold Sweat, an oversized, pink, melting popsicle, and Morning Shake, a cup of coffee surrounded by a spill, are disturbingly specific images of personal addiction. Please Let Me Go combines magnified images of drug paraphernalia—a belt, a spoon, a cheap lighter—in an unholy trinity.   It’s impossible to look at Putting Two and Two Together without imagining the sensation of physical shock that comes from sticking a fork in an electrical socket.

Nick Doyle, Putting Two and Two Together, 2022, collaged denim on panel, 72” x 10” (fork), 40” x 25”

The poppies in Farmers and Reapers introduce an unexpected lyrical note—and possibly a sly irony–into Doyle’s visual vocabulary, which up to now has consisted mostly of manufactured objects. Doyle employs images of mass-produced items–still ubiquitous, pandemic-related supply chain issues notwithstanding–as a kind of shorthand for capitalism and colonialism, and in a broader sense, American individualism and toxic masculinity. The opioid-producing poppies, sourced mostly from Southeast Asia and Latin America, might represent the revenge of the third world, which has now created a reciprocal addiction.

Nick Doyle, Cold Sweat, 2022, collaged denim on panel, 67” x 47”

Only one of the artworks in Farmers and Reapers is a three-dimensional miniature similar to those that have appeared in Doyle’s previous shows. Gone, a doll-size, perfect replica of a hospital bed, is made of wood and comes complete with rumpled hospital sheets and blanket. It is a poignant comment on the ultimate price that many will pay for their addiction. Positioned on a low pedestal, we see the bed from above, the ghostly point of view of a departing soul. The sensation of looking down is shocking, but already we feel the remoteness that must accompany the passage of the recently deceased.

The undeniable attractions of the artworks in Farmers and Reapers heighten the emotional charge of their dark subtext by simultaneously seducing and repelling the viewer. These poppies and mirror balls, these garbage bags and spoons and forks, together constitute both a warning and a lament for the destructive yet often unacknowledged power of invisible economic forces. As Reyes/Finn partner Bridget Finn says of the artist, “He opens conversations on addiction, destruction and capitalistic greed and the ways in which they are opposed to the fallacy of the American Dream, thus using the fiber of American culture to craft its critique.” With Farmers and Reapers, Nick Doyle seems intent on raising awareness of the traps laid by malign elements as the first step toward moving beyond them.

Nick Doyle, Gone, 2022, maple, cotton, wax, 2022, 13” x 22” x 11”

Nick Doyle: Farmers and Reapers at the Reyes/Finn Gallery through July, 16.   All images courtesy of the artist and Reyes/Finn, Detroit

Quiet As It’s Kept @ Whitney Biennial 2022

Whitney Museum of Art Biennial 2022, Installation image

The Whitney Biennial is the longest-running survey of American art and has been a hallmark of the Museum since 1932. Initiated by the Museum’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as an invitational exhibition featuring artwork created in the preceding two years, the biennials were originally organized by medium, with painting alternating with sculpture and works on paper. Much has evolved over the years and this year the Biennial comes after being postponed because of the pandemic. The spaces here contrast significantly, acknowledging the acute polarities in American society. One floor is a labyrinth, a dark space of containment and another is a clearing, open and light field. The subtitle of this year’s Biennial is Quiet as it’s Kept, is a colloquialism.  The quote comes from the writer Toni Morrison and is said prior to something, often obvious that should be kept a secret. The curators, David Beslin, and Adrenne Edwards have been entrusted with making the exhibition that resides within the Museum’s history, collection and reputation. This is the 18th iteration and continues to function as an ongoing experiment.

Denyse Thomasos, Displaced Burial/Burial at Gorée, 1993.

The sixth-floor section of the Biennial opens with two large-scale abstract works by the late artist Denyse Thomasos, who died in 2012 at 47. For these striking works, Thomasos was interested in creating the sense of claustrophobia felt by enslaved people crossing the Atlantic crossing and inmates being held in prisons. Her goal was “to capture the feeling of confinement,” she once said, per the wall text, as a way to explore how structures like ships and prisons have “left catastrophic effects on the Black psyche. Her black and white overlapping grids create a feeling of claustrophobia and captivity. There are two twin paintings presented here as the viewer enters a space that is entirely black. Most of this floor is divided up into rooms (all black) that serve as viewing rooms for art videos.

Rebecca Belmore’s sculpture, “ishkode (fire),” 2021

At the Whitney Biennial, center, the Indigenous artist Rebecca Belmore’s sculpture, “ishkode (fire),” 2021, made from clay and bullet casings.  The Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore—who was the first Indigenous artist to present Canada at the Venice Biennale, in 2005—made this commanding ceramic sculpture from a sleeping bag cast in clay and surrounded it with an arrangement of empty bullet casings. The work, a critique of the historic genocide and ongoing disproportionate violence against Indigenous people, is a centerpiece of the sixth floor of the exhibition, illuminated from above in the otherwise darkened space. “The work carries an emptiness,” the artist writes. “But at the same time, because it’s a standing figure, I’m hoping that the work contains some positive aspects of this idea that we need to try to deal with violence.”  In the background, Guadalupe Rosales’s photographs of East Los Angeles, 2022.

Daniel Matinez, Post Manifesto for the Future, 2022

There are five photographs that document what Daniel Joseph Marinez has described as “radical performative experiment of becoming post-human and the evolution of a new species.” Martinez used his own body to interrogate and bear witness to the extraordinary moment in human history, our own self-destruction.”  The recent abstract paintings on view here involve a process of accumulation in which the surface of the canvas is constructed of sweeping gestures, letters, drips, splatters, and moments of erasure is a reflection of how we evolve in life.  The black and white silkscreened work of marks and impressions tries to articulate who we are or who we might be at any given moment: a kind of visual poem or disruption.

Adam Pendelton, Untitled 2021

Ralph Lemon is an interdisciplinary artist who works primarily in performance and has made drawings throughout his life.  For the Biennial he has created a choreography of work that is presented in a group and moves throughout the exhibition in a circle.  Every so often the work moves to a new position in the collection. Themes range from elaborate visual mediations and the nature of the artistic process itself to experiments refracting Black American culture, icons, music, and joy.  It is fair to say this is an installation of images that changes its position during the exhibition.

Ralph Lemon, One of several from an untitled series, that changes. 2022

There are five paintings by Jane Dickson who shares the hopes and aspirations that commercial signs convey both in contemporary suburban spaces she photographed in New York City during the 1980s.  The Motel is one of the five.   Dickson’s careful depictions suggest that certain violence comes with making generalizations in the writing off of those who lead their lives in the areas that are frequently overlooked or dismissed. In her statement she says, “I chose to be a witness to my time, not to document its grand moments, but to capture the small telling ones, the overlooked everyday things that define a time and place.

Jane Dickson, Motel 5, Acrylic on Felt, 2019

Coco Fusco, Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word, 2021.

In this new video, Coco Fusco directly reflects on the death toll caused by the pandemic. We see her in a boat just off Hart Island, near the Bronx. The island has long been the site of New York City’s potter’s field, where unclaimed bodies are buried. At the height of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s, many bodies of people whose families had disowned them were sent here; over the past two years, it has again become active at an alarming rate. Fusco tapped poet and writer Pamela Sneed, an AIDS activist who penned a 2020 memoir Funeral Diva about that era, to provide the narration—written by Fusco—for this poignant mediation on death, loss, and grief. Over the course of 12 minutes, Sneed tells us that there could be as many as a million bodies buried here, but no one accurately knows. With the staggering total death totals from Covid, she notes, bodies become numbers in ways that make us forget the stories of those who are lost. Throughout the film, like a chorus, Sneed repeats, “‘When death comes it will have your eyes,’ he said.”

If you are visiting New York City before September 6, 2022, it is always a good experience to see what is going on around the country.  Something worth note is there are four indigenous artists represented from various parts of Noth America.  The exhibitions are on floors, 1, 3, 5, and 6.

In Summary, I would agree with the art critic Peter Schjeldahl who says “ long on installations and videos and short on painting, conventional sculpture, and straight photography.” When he writes for The New Yorker. Whitney Biennial 2022

Asymmetry @ Library Street Collective

Asymmetry, installation at Library Street Collective All images: Library Street Collective

 Asymmetry, a two-person exhibition of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell on view at Library Street Collective until May 4, 2022, continues the gallery’s program of pairing the work of two artists in a provocative dialog.  Zenax, the recent show of Beverly Fishman and California painter Gary Lang could have been described as a more-or-less harmonious conversation; Asymmetry is something more along the lines of a very civil argument.

Untitled Yellow Square, by Robert Moreland, 2022, canvas on wooden panel with acrylic paint, tacks and leather hinges.

The exhibition demonstrates that the tenets of Constructivism–that materials and methods of construction generate the meaning and physical presence of art objects–retain their relevance well into the 21st century.   This philosophical habit of mind underpins the work of both Moreland and Surdell, but as one might expect of a line of aesthetic thought that is over 100 years old, their common starting point has diverged, resulting in endpoints that are quite far from each other in appearance and intent.

Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Robert Moreland dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and later began to teach himself about art by hanging out with friends at the margins of art school, talking to the professors and attending the occasional lecture. He worked with a woodworker for a time, where he learned the craftsmanship that is still a salient feature of his art practice.  Moreland moved to L.A. some years ago and credits the anonymity and openness of the city as a creative catalyst for his recent work.

Moreland prizes the labor of making art as a meditative act, and gravitates to the routine, everyday nature of fabrication.  The artist proceeds with deliberation when creating a piece, a working habit which he credits to his art conservator mother who, he says, showed him how to “slow down and take my time.” The artist uses hundreds of tacks—invisible on the face of the constructs–to secure the cloth on the underlying wooden components. Leather hinges connect the constituent pieces of each artwork. Taken together, these components and physical processes define his highly personal, almost ritualistic art practice.

Untitled Blue Rectangle IV, by Robert Moreland, 2021, canvas on wooden panel with acrylic paint, tacks and leather hinges.

 

Untitled Blue Rectangle IV, by Robert Moreland, 2021, side installation view.

The artist describes himself as more of a builder than a painter. These paintings or sculptures (Moreland resists referring to them as one or the other) operate as activators of the space around and in front of them. His artworks in Asymmetry, each listed as “Untitled” beside an austere description of their physical shape and color, are painted with stripes or squares of an intense single hue that follows the contours of each piece. The canvas components are stretched over rigid rectilinear –and occasionally columnar–wooden structures, which are then assembled into folded and buckled shapes that call to mind the vintage toy Jacob’s ladder, or perhaps reference industrial shapes like tank treads or conveyor belts. The 5 precisely constructed pieces installed in the gallery look as if they could fold or open or climb down the wall, implying movement event though they are static.

More defined by what they do not offer rather than by what they do, Moreland’s constructions are rigorous and demanding, their expressive content confined within narrow formal boundaries that refuse referentiality, gesture and imagery. In this, he follows in the footsteps of a well-established philosophy of aesthetics practiced by mid-century minimalists like Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd, artists Moreland professes to admire.

Not one but not two either (blue), by Jacqueline Surdell, 2022, braided cotton cord, steel, 108” x 51” x 11.” Photo: Library Street Collective.

In emotional temperature and methodological expressiveness, the work of Jacqueline Surdell could hardly offer a stronger contrast to Moreland’s recessive artworks. Exuberant and improvisational, her three free-form tapestries made from thick ropes and lines nearly dance off the wall. They nod to the warp and weft of traditional fiber works, but with these hefty woven pieces, Surdell has achieved a kind of painterly freedom in execution that is both novel and exhilarating. In overall shape she allows some scope to the effect of gravity, with elements of the artworks seeming to sink downward, referencing natural forms like bird nests or insect cases. Clotted knots and twisty braids surround circular portals, while individual cords escape and crawl across the floor.

As a native Chicagoan, Surdell feels related to the environment, history, and blue-collar work ethic of the city, with childhood memories of her grandmother’s plein air landscape painting adding yet another level of complexity. The physical act of creating the works, which weigh an average of 150 pounds, demands considerable physical strength that the artist, a self-described recovering athlete, has in abundance.  She often uses her own body as a shuttle, weaving pounds of rope together as she unifies figure and ground.

Earth Licker, by Jacqueline Surdell, 2022, Braided cotton cord, nylon cord, steel, 120” x 120” x 16.” Photo: Library Street Collective

Not one but not two either (blue-detail)

The palette of Surdell’s work is determined by the native color of commercially available nylon and cotton lines.  The repetitive, almost beaded effect of row upon row of knots in Earth Licker suggests a ceremonial process like the traditional craft of some imaginary future tribe. The woven elements frame and celebrate the implied portal.  In the other two pieces, Not one but not two either (blue) and Not one but not two either (red), triangular imagery points to the open spaces, setting up a bilateral conversation between a circular void and pointing chevron. Her process is open-ended and spontaneous, yet the results seem inevitable.

Fiber art, a medium long devalued because of its association with women’s work, seems–at last–to be coming into prominence as a medium. Here in Detroit, recent shows of woven work by distinguished international textile artist Olga de Amaral at the Cranbrook Art Museum, as well as exhibitions by Detroit artists Carole Harris, Boisali Biswas and Jeanne Bieri, seem to indicate that fiber art has entered a new era of acceptance as a major medium of expression. Surdell’s work is a welcome addition to this burgeoning contemporary art practice.

In this age of pluralism and inclusivity, these contrasting bodies of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell in Asymmetry represent two valid ways of making and thinking about art among many. Moreland’s artworks depend upon an established minimalist esthetic that retains considerable currency in contemporary art, even as Surdell’s tapestries set off for unknown territory. The choice is not either/or, but both/and.

Asymmetry, a two-person exhibition of work by Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell on view at Library Street Collective until May 4, 2022

Castagnacci: Quarry Echoes & Wanderings @ BBAC

Vincent Castagnacci: Quarry Echoes & Wanderings at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

An installation view of Vincent Castagnacci: Quarry Echoes & Wanderings, which will be at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center until April 21.

 Vincent Castagnacci: Quarry Echoes & Wanderings (1984-2021) is an intriguing tour through abstraction with a distinctly geometric cast, and will be up at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center through April 21. Castagnacci, the University of Michigan’s Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Fine Art Emeritus, takes rationalism’s standard forms – squares, semi-circles, triangles and parallel lines – and twists them to his liking, confounding conventional expectations.

Take, for example, the large, black and white VII.06 – 19.VIII.06. This series of interconnected squares, some scored in dull red, has an undeniable momentum, and appears to be in the process of levitating from left to right. The piece is spare, and looks like it was sketched rather quickly — doubtless an illusion. In some respects, you could say it resembles a series of matchbooks or, more intriguingly, the sort of early renderings architects jot down to see how different building volumes will interact with one another.

Vincent Castagnacci, VII.06 – 19.VIII.06, Charcoal pencil, Dry pigment, Gesso, 2007.

But Castagnacci, who maintains a studio locally in Pinckney and one in Gloucester, Massachusetts, attributes the genesis of his work to the geometry of natural landscapes, not man-made forms. In his artist’s statement Castagnacci cites the “coastal topography of Cape Ann” around Gloucester, with its boulder-tossed beaches and craggy granite bluffs, as both inspiration and defining aesthetic undergirding his point of view. So perhaps VII.06 – 19.VIII.06 is less architectural and more a tectonic rendering of rock and hillside.

Castagnacci, who arrived at the University of Michigan in 1973, studied at the Boston Museum School at Tufts University, then followed that with both a B.F.A. and M.F.A. from Yale. He was most recently a Mellon Fellow at Kalamazoo College, and has also been a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome. His artistic interests range widely. Encouraged by the dean of the U-M School of Art & Design to reach across academic boundaries, Castagnacci collaborated with percussionist and composer Michael Gould in a five-year project that in 2005 yielded Into the Quarry, an installation celebrating the convergence of art and music in space and time.

Annie VanGelderen, BBAC president and CEO, praised Castagnacci’s “incredible body of work, one that demonstrates both restraint and a thread connecting through the years.” The pieces on display, she added, “unfold in geometric presentation, whether with painting, drawing or printmaking.”

Vincent Castagnacci, Rome: III.25.80-20.VII.12, Oil and chalk, 2012

The contrast between Castagnacci’s spare black-and-white drawings and his colorful, texture-rich paintings, which pop like exclamation points, is part of what gives this exhibition its juice. The oil-and-chalk Rome: III.25.80-20.VII.12 offers a pleasing contrast to the “simpler” works, an essay in repetitive verticals that progress in color from dull, mottled shades of powder blue to nightingale brown. It’s a remarkably textured exercise. The effect, one viewer suggested, reminded her of the raw material for blue jeans, though for this visitor, it read more like a satisfyingly weathered, corrugated metal wall in tones of grayish-blue.

There are a number of absorbing essays in squares and rectangles here, including the austere, geometric 23.II-5.III.11#1, comprised of three or four superimposed frames. Two are squarish, while a third contained within the others tilts and lists into its fellows, like an unsteady parallelogram. Rendered in surprisingly rich tones of charcoal and ash, 23.II-5 almost amounts to a monochromatic color study, animated by a densely textured black rectangle that anchors the work and gives it its mesmerizing depth.

Vincent Castagnacci, 23.II-5.III.11#1, Oil, 1997

23.II-5.III.11#1, is a warm, color-saturated canvas in distressed shades of barn red, scored here and there with verticals and horizontals that almost suggest inset panels in a door. In some ways this lush, resonant piece feels thousands of miles from the Massachusetts coast and Cape Ann. In its warmth and seemingly ancient appearance, it calls up the Mediterranean more readily than the North Atlantic.

Finally, 7-11.X.19, one of the handsomest pieces on display, is a highly formalistic, acrylic-and-ash color study in green, periwinkle, lavender and shades of gray edging into black. Part of the charm of this composition is that while the strong colors all seem to occupy the same plane, the dark gray they frame looks downright three-dimensional, as if that quadrant of the canvas were receding several inches from the rest of the work. It’s an absorbing design that tiptoes to the edge of trompe l’oeil.

Vincent Castagnacci, 7-11.X.19, Acrylic, Ash, 2019.

Get ready for something completely different when you pass from Castagnacci to the adjacent gallery housing Christine Welch’s Nature of Things, also up through April 21. The first work that greets you is a “wasp comb,” very much like a honeycomb, framed in a box atop a bed of greenish-yellow leaves. Wasp nests figure large in this unusual exhibition. Indeed, perhaps the most-striking elements are the several large paper-wasp nests hanging from the ceiling like so many cocoons of prodigious size.

Welch says she’s dazzled by our connection to nature, and in particular with the structural similarities beneath the surface of any number of natural forms, the human body included. With Nature’s Seamstress, she constructs a mannequin out of a clothing designer’s dress form, in a skirt made from large sheets of wasp paper, and a round wasp comb for a head. Completing the ensemble are two strands of large, brown seed pods strung together into a necklace.

The combination of oddball elements at first sounds like it might be amusing, a bit of a visual joke, but the actual assemblage is far more sobering than humorous, with suggestions of a totemic form constructed by a people far more intimate with the natural sphere than those of us in the “civilized” world.

An installation view of Nature of Things: Christine Welch, at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center through April 21.

Christine Welch, Hive, at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

Both Vincent Castagnacci: Quarry Echoes & Wanderings (1984-2021) and Nature of Things: Christine Welch will be up at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center through April 21.

 

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