The Medium is the Message
Three mixed-media artists showing at MPC provoke viewer engagement.
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Three Women: Three Directions in Mixed Media at the Monterey Peninsula College Art Gallery features the work of Donise English, Susan Field and Amy Newell. These artists, from California, New York and Wisconsin respectively, show the manifold possibilities of mixed-medium art, and how difficult it is to use that open-endedness to achieve something both personally meaningful and visually compelling. They explore their own private interior worlds, sometimes disappearing into hermetic obscurity with their self-referencing and obsessions, and sometimes offering quirky imagery that demands deciphering.
English’s works on paper have delicately rendered forms and are made from precious materials; they have a conventional two-dimensional picture aspect. Newell and Field, in contrast, use a sculptural format with work that must be seen in the round, or at least from three sides, to be appreciated. Moreover, their pieces have unusual juxtapositions of materials that give new meaning to the materials while creating unique, personal realities.
The challenge for both artist and viewer is to come together for a period of time so that the artist’s relationship to her materials and forms works on the viewer’s sensibilities in a provocative, meaningful way.
Field’s sculptural pieces, whether on the floor or hanging from the wall, recall the hyper-obsession in Eva Hesse’s pivotal sculpture of the 1960s. Materials are taken out of context and reassembled, achieving a jarring, surrealist effect; we become more aware of the nature of the material while surrendering to its new identity as part of another whole.
In “Reseed,” Field has created a box of thick, chunky wood, with its thick sides split here and there from being dried out. Overflowing from the box is an eruption of black horsehair that creeps over the sides like lava flows and wiggles out onto the floor. Fastened at the end of each “flow” is a plastic slide mount.
To this eye, the work addresses the cyclical nature of things, with the slides serving as both the end point of the process of taming nature (the horsehair that rises from the box as a tangled mass but flows to the floor as tamed, controlled braids) and the beginning point of reconciliation. Through slides, a subject is examined; and the association remains. So we are directed back into the dynamic of wild hair and weathered wood and the human hand in it all.
Field’s “The Dead and the Living,” a three-foot-square wall piece, is comprised of a grid fashioned from myriad slide mounts loosely painted brown. Interspersed all over the grid seams, both vertically and horizontally, are bits of paper with typed, atmospheric, words, such as “shocking,” “pathetic,” “superficial,” “quack,” “opera.” One thinks of the powerful word messages of Jenny Holzer, but the sheer number of word bits and their random meanings militates against any conclusive response. Perhaps, as is often the case with obsession-driven assemblage, one is not supposed to respond intellectually, but merely let the material wash over you like a breaking wave.
Newell’s small pedestal pieces, part of a “Mapping Self” series, and her illuminated, wall-mounted boxes, part of her “Souvenir” series, work differently. The paradox inherent in the “Mapping Self” pieces—laminated acrylic blocks with tooled relief, maps and photos sandwiched inside—is that they are opaque in meaning. What self is being mapped?
Newell’s “Souvenir” series, in contrast, has some of the magic of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. In Newell’s work, mixed-media collages are mounted in wooden cigar boxes painted black and lined with silver leaf. One can see, lighted from inside, postage stamps, bits of maps, photos and rubber stamps; the sense of nostalgia is palpable.
English’s works on paper are deceptive, in that the delicate materials and recurrent, frail female form embody powerful messages of female power and the objectification of women in our culture.
English has created an iconic figure that recurs to play out her message. In “Vessel,” the frontal nude figure floats in a little sea of wrinkled papers, and instead of a head and shoulders, the figure has the handles and opening of a vase. From it, a bouquet of tiny flowers protrudes as a sweet offering. In “Invisible Woman: Don’t Tell,” the female figure is covered with white and black letters, single, typed letters that act like leopard spots. A cluster of them hovers at the mouth as if they were trying, but unable, to escape. One senses that there’s a voice that can’t be heard, a person inside that can’t be seen.
The mixed-medium work in this exhibition, regardless of the relative success of each piece, is noteworthy because it is a good representation of art activity across the country. Many artists have retreated into the inner sanctum of their psychologies. Their works are still lifes of moods, landscapes of dreams, portraits of the fears and obsessions that agitate and haunt and mark them as alive.
Three Women continues at the MPC art Gallery through March 4. Call 646-3060 for hours.