There are so few sculpture exhibitions in Maine that the very appearance of an exhibition is a special occasion. This is certainly reason enough to go to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland where “Spatial Relations” (until January 9) occupies the main gallery. But it also turns out to be a wonderful ensemble performance for the three featured artists: Elizabeth Atterbury, Gordon Hall and Anna Hepler.
The three sculptors know each other and know each other’s work very well. As it turns out, their work also has various things in common. This is why the large space where their sculptures are placed gives the impression of a unique installation piece.
There are 20 sculptures, although Elizabeth Atterbury’s “Arrangement 3 (In September)” is actually several small sculptures that include individual components of a larger overall work. Among the commonalities are the materials – wood, concrete, cardboard, metal and paper – the use of color and an interest in seemingly everyday subjects that nonetheless challenge any assumptions we may have about them.
These synchronies create threads of conversation that weave between the pieces, reinforcing the feeling of the exhibition’s overall continuity.
In this setting, however, each artist demonstrates individual concerns. Anna Hepler, for example, highlights a palpable vulnerability by constructing pieces that either seem incredibly fragile or on the verge of collapsing. His “Cataract” is one of the stars of the show, both by the obsession with its construction and by the multitude of associations it can evoke.
It’s made of strips cut from the edges of corrugated cardboard, each probably a quarter of an inch thick, which Hepler glues together to form an inverted “U” that hangs from a peg on the wall. It’s a wonder it holds up at all, especially since the drafts in the room tend to push it one way or the other.
“Cataract” here refers to a waterfall, not eye disease, and is certainly reminiscent of a stream of water flowing around a rock or tree (the stake on the wall) in a forked waterfall. . However, it can also suggest hair, or a ceremonial garment such as a clerical tip or a Masonic chain necklace.
The “Golem” by the same artist does not refer to the “Lord of the Rings” (that was Gollum), but to the automaton of medieval Jewish folklore – an anthropomorphic figure in clay imbued with life by a rabbi to protect the ghetto from Prague from the persecution. A towering humanoid shape can be detected in the assembly of plywood, studs and steel pins. But it is held and moved away from the wall by another stake, giving us the impression that if this support were suddenly removed, the figure would collapse into a pile of wood. This vulnerability gives these works an unexpected emotional dimension.
Hepler’s implicit references, as well as viewers’ own conjectures, also contribute to making us question the accuracy of our perception. We think we know what something is, but on another level we understand that it could be so many other things. In the case of “The Scholar”, for example, we don’t even know if it’s a three-dimensional painting or a sculpture. It has the quality of a line drawing that leaped off the page and took shape. And is that a reference to a scholar’s rock? Or does the character look like a scholar whose robes drag behind him?
This vagueness of context is an affinity Hepler shares with Atterbury and Hall, but particularly with Atterbury. In the aforementioned “Arrangement 3”, objects such as wooden sandals, a metal spring, a bowl filled with sand and a pair of crossed sticks are separated from their natural surroundings and / or their function. This forces us to contemplate them as single objects, devoid of their original meaning.
When we view them this way, not only does each object convey an inherently individual integrity, our perception opens up to a myriad of possibilities and associations. Suddenly the spring can look like a walking stick, the bowl with sand can take on the character of a ritual object, the crossed sticks can appear like snakes or worms or sea sponges.
Atterbury’s “Pearls 1” looks like a necklace hanging on the wall from a peg. (All artists, incidentally, use this ankle device; Hepler with “Cataracte” and “Cowgirl,” a clay sculpture similar to a riata, and Hall with “Sash,” creating yet another synergy.)
But “Pearls 1” is actually a string of pearls made from carved, dried peach kernels, something we only realize when we get close to it. This can change the character of the sculpture, reminiscent of rosaries or Hindu rosaries. This latter connotation is reinforced when one thinks of rosaries made of other organic materials, such as those fashioned by medieval nuns from dried rose petals.
Hall’s work also blurs our initial perception in a playful way, layering it with unexpected materials and visual tricks. “Closed Box with Painted Top” appears to be exactly what the title says. Yet, it is made of poured concrete, making the implied function impractical to the point of being unnecessary. Our perception of the weight of matter also prompts us to want to know its content. Surely it must be something precious to be so secreted in such a heavy fortification.
Something similar happens with the door cut into the base of “OVER-BELIEFS,” a title taken from Hall’s first book which here refers to a sculpture that could represent a water fountain or baptismal font. The title would seem to tilt it towards this last reference. But maybe “over-beliefs” refer to beliefs that the viewer applies to the object.
Or there’s “Shim,” which appears to be an oversized version of a leveling shim. In its exaggerated proportions, it recalls the disproportionate sculptures of common objects and foods by Claes Oldenburg. But like most of the works in the exhibition, it is imbued with a presence that seems to define the space that surrounds it or that surrounds it. Its perceptual weight also affects neighboring works – Hepler’s ‘Cataract’ and Atterbury’s ‘Signature in Black’, a wavy length of ink-covered linden – making them even lighter and softer than they could on their own. .
This last point is, of course, a classic concern of sculpture. What’s surprising about this show, however, is how it works even with pieces that aren’t freestanding and lean against or hang in front of walls. A three-dimensional object has an integrity which commands a certain type of attention. But this show illustrates how any sculpture can emanate a presence that affects what surrounds it, even an implacable wall behind it.
If in doubt, just look at the shadows cast by Hall’s “Cataract” and “Golem” or “Leaning Back (2)”. The latter does not just cast a shadow; he projects one with an orange tint – the product of the paint he used on the back. At the same time, you may also notice that you too have been affected by these presences.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
‘West Side Story’ is an urgent and absolutely gorgeous cover of the original