Monday, September 28, 2009

Fall 2009 solos at the Arlington Arts Center

David Page


Untitled, found implements, by David Page

Seldom does a visit to a multi-gallery space, such as the Arlington Arts Center is, yield so many different art exhibitions with one thing in common: they are all excellent shows in their own unique way.

By the way, this is a testament not only to the creative and technical talent of the artists whom I am about to discuss, but also to the superlative changes that the team of Jeffery Cudlin as curator and Claire Huschle as Executive Director have been able to effect upon the Arlington Arts Center during the relative short period that they have been there. Succinctly put, they have brought the Center to the 21st century dialogue of the visual arts at warp factor speeds.

David Page
The main level's Meyer Gallery hosts the work of Trawick Prize winner David Page, an artist of ultimate technical skill and living proof that this sometimes derided ability, when married to intelligent creativity, and in Page's case with a Gillespian sense of uneasy recognition, results in work that sets an artist apart from the rest.

As one enters the gallery, Page offers a table full of found implements that he collects as a way to trigger ideas in his unique mind; it is the found object that often kindles a reconstructed shape, often larger, with expanded properties. It is a fascinating and surprisingly attractive collection of "things."

Objects that when viewed individually are mostly common and innocuous. Here we see a set of ice tongs, there a planting scoop, here a metal spoon. The sort of objects that we'd expect to find in an artist's studio if that artist draws inspiration from them.

Objects that when viewed together seem dangerous and macabre. Here we see a stabbing knife, there a squeezing instrument, here an eye-popping scoop. The sort of objects that we'd expect to find in Hannibal Lechter's terror studio as his instruments of torture and death.

And the end result of Page's transmorphication of the images of the found objects into the fine art objects in this exhibition have a lot of profound artistic pedigree and creative intelligence, but also a healthy dose of Lechterian genetics. In fact I am told that Page was once commissioned to create some objects for one of the movies in the Hannibal Lechter series.

David Page
Page is a consummate technician, and what adds to a sense of unease that comes from a very deep and primitive place inside us, is the fact that he is able to take a very common object (a brush, or a wooden handle) and add a very refined leather extension or addition to it, and almost like magic that common object not only becomes a very beautiful work of art, but also projects a sense of alarming threat, depending on who is the user of the object, and who it could be used on.

Adding to this hard to describe uneasiness we return to the highly refined technical skills employed to transform the object. In doing so Page is so good that he delivers a sense of mass production in these unique pieces. It is as if there was a whole industry out there churning out leather-pointed ax handles for a consuming segment of the public where the exploration of the human body has few limits.

Page's neighbor on the other side of the Meyer Gallery is Cynthia Hron, who offers two untitled floor sculptures and several drawings of the same sculptural forms. It is the two floor pieces, the undercarriage made of wire and the "skin" made of thousands of black cable ties that are notable.

Hron's sculptures are both visually organic and also peculiarly recognizable in an odd way. The work clearly fits in the Dan Flavin school of artists whose supplies come from your local Home Depot, and seldom have cable ties been more elegantly employed as they are in these two pieces.

Across the hall in the Chairmen's Gallery, Philadelphia-based artist Roxana Perez-Mendez has delivered one of the best set of video installations that I have ever seen.

I am not a big fan of segregating artists by ethnicity or race, and yet in this case, Perez-Mendez employs her Puerto Rican ethnicity like a ferocious weapon that add a singularly Latina flavor to her works.

You can't hide from it. As soon as you enter the darkened space, your ears are filled with the salsa sounds of a decades old hit by Willie Colon (my favorite Willie Colon hit of all time is here). To the left is a video installation playing the Willie Colon record over and over. On the screen, Perez-Mendez dances uninterrupted and unable to stop, a treadmill is her dance floor, and while the Willie Colon orchestra's Hector LaVoe sings "Todo tiene su final, nada dura para siempre" (or "Everything has an ending, nothing lasts forever"), Perez-Mendez dances forever on the video, one sensual never ending salsa routine after another. It's a fascinating play on the words of the song that I suspect is only discernible to Spanish speakers, and then maybe even to just those of a Caribbean nature.

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Todo Tiene Su Final (clip), Roxana Perez-Mendez. Pepper's ghost hologram, table, record player, record and sleeve, DV performance and mixed media. C. 2009

The two other video installations extend an artistic homage hand to the artist's fellow Latin American ancestry artists. One hand is extended southwest to Mexico and one south to Cuba. Both videos honor desperate people looking for a better life.

One is very easy to decipher. In "De Noche Sueño Contigo" (At Night I Dream of You), we see a toy truck in a desert scene, while a Pepper's Ghost Hologram disembark countless versions of the artist from the opened rear of the truck. They jump out of the truck, and run north to a better life. It is a never ending flood of illegal immigrants rushing out of the bowels of the truck. In the background we still hear LaVoe's voice crooning that everything has an end.

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Roxana Perez-Mendez, De Noche Sueño Contigo (clip)

The other takes a lot more conceptual and historical depth to figure out. In this elegant video installation, a framework holds a small wood dingy, while a fan blows some bits of green shredded materials under the boat, giving the impression of water. On the rear screen, a Pepper's Ghost hologram of Perez-Mendez rows and rows and rows without end. Plastic bags at her feet are the luggage of the rowing woman on the screen.

When I first saw this installation, and before I knew of the artist's ethnic background, I immediately and incorrectly thought that she was Cuban, as over the last few decades Cuban artists such as K'Cho and Sandra Ramos have all but appropriated the subject of the boat or raft to represent the never-ending flow of balseros (raft people) that have been draining out of Cuba for decades now and drowning by the tens of thousands in their attempt to escape from that prison island.

video

The title gives it away.

It is titled "Caridad," the straight translation of which is "Charity."

And yet there's more there that takes a good dosage of Cubanosity to decipher. You say to a non Cuban person of Latin American heritage the word "Caridad" and they will think "charity."

You say "Caridad" to a Cuban and they know that you're are talking about Cachita (the nickname for the proper name of Caridad), or La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre; Cuba's patron saint and its own unique incarnation of the Holy Mother.

And here Perez-Mendez gets even deeper into the clue-giving intelligence of the classic marriage of imagery with a perfect title. Dan Brown could learn a few new tricks from this artist!

The legend of the apparition of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre dates to 1604 or 1606. It is said that The Virgin appeared one day in the Bay of Nipe near Santiago de Cuba, in the Oriente province of the island, to two white brothers, Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos, and to a ten-year old black child appropriately named Juan Moreno (Moreno in Spanish means "dark-skinned"). The three Cubans were out fishing in the Bay when a sudden storm began to toss their boat. Alarmed that they were about to capsize and drown, they prayed for divine intervention. Suddenly they heard a celestial voice that said "I am the Virgin of Charity." Then they saw Mary float above them and in one hand, the Virgin carried a baby Jesus; in the other, she held a cross. Because race has always been an issue in Cuba (and remains to this day), the racial attributes and compositions of all the players in this religious drama is important; essentially, it covers the entire racial makeup of the Cuban population. Just like Mexico has a mestiza native Virgin, Cuba has a Virgin who tends to both racial groups of the Cuban people. Since the Virgin of Charity had earlier appeared in Spain, the Cuban re-apparition was named after the nearby mining town of El Cobre. In the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, the Virgin is named Ochún and depicted as black, so Cachita is essentially a Holy Mother for all Cubans.

The three males on the boat (known in Cuba as "the three Juans", even though only two of them had that name) were saved from drowning by the Virgin, and they returned ashore and told everyone about the miracle at sea.

In the video installation, Perez-Mendez sails north, hoping for a miracle and a new life. Soon she may get to Florida, and if she's lucky she'll set feet on land and be allowed to stay. If she's caught at sea by the Coast Guard, she will be returned to Cuba, where she will be imprisoned for trying to escape. It is the hideous Clintonian "feet dry, feet wet" policy. In the background LaVoe's voice reminds the balsera that everything must end. Even her voyage ends one way or the other.

These two pieces are narrative art at its best. Perez-Mendez's work can transform and seduce people who usually do not enjoy video art in a way that I had not experienced before. This is an artist to follow and keep an eye on.

On the hall walls of the first floor of the Center, a set of elegant drawings by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum caught my eye when I first walked into the Center. As a lover of drawing, and specifically of representational drawing, this was not unexpected. The works are technically flawless and fresh and vibrant, and show the artist in a series of almost mythological perspectives.

But the real gems are the site specific works that Phatsimo Sunstrum created on the walls of the Tiffany Gallery.

The Center's Tiffany Gallery must be the most beautiful small gallery in the US - a set of large original Tiffany windows will do that to any art space. This gallery is also, easily, the most difficult place to hang art in the planet. Why? The beauty of the stained glass casts a never ending cacophony of dancing colors on the walls of the gallery space. Whatever hangs in this gallery better look good with a tint of purple here, a blaze of yellow there, always playing and shifting on its surface.

Phatsimo Sunstrum conquered the Tiffany Gallery and the real shame here is that all that beautiful site specific work will be destroyed when this exhibition is over.

There is a sensuality to the line in drawing that no other genre has. When in the hands of a talented and skilled artist, like this one, the line can tell stories like no brush can deliver.

It twists and grows and shrinks and expands; it dances on the surface to which it is being applied and reveals secrets about the artist creating the work. Through the stories gossiped by the line we learn about how the artist felt and reacted at that precise instant. The line in Phatsimo Sunstrum's wall drawings capture the moment in time when something went very right for this artist. We look and study the fluidity and sensuality of the line and we can almost smell the scent of the artist, face and eyes inches away from the wall, all visual perspective all but impossible, relying only on memories of size and scale, as her gifted hand dances on a once blank wall to create a work of ephemeral beauty that will only last for an exhibition.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, audax/viator. site specific drawing installation (detail), 2009.

Witness the results. In the panel above, a life sized (or larger) version of the artist takes us through three specific moments in time as she approaches the pond, gingerly dips her feet in it, and then stands to the right.

The color line that defines this drawing against the flatness of a rich black background that would otherwise absorb the figure is a triumph of minimalism and skill. Note how a simple line defines the erotic turn of the woman's stomach or the dainty turn of the ankle as she explores the water's temperature. Our own toes feel the coolness of the dark water as Phatsimo Sunstrum dips her toes into its primeval black wetness - it is a magical moment where a simple line has enchanted our logical brain into believing a two dimensional image.

The Center's lower level galleries host the sculptural works of Christian Benefiel and Jenn Figg.

Figg offers a sculptural installation made up of many cut-prints mounted on corrugated plastic. They give us a theatrical impression which feels as if we're behind the theatre's screen, peeping on a performance taking place. The subtle lighting applied to the works also project the sculptures onto the rear wall, reinforcing this theatrical experience.

Benefiel's large floor sculptures use a lot of cast iron, handsomely welded to host fragile insides that use blowers to inflate and deflate them. It is a successful marriage of fragility with strength.

The Fall Solo 2009 shows go through November 7 2009.