Flatlanders & Surface Dwellers, 516 ARTS, 516 Central Ave. S.W., Albuquerque, 505-242-1445; through June 1
Flatlanders & Surface Dwellers sounds like a great gig booked for the Lensic. With a moniker like that, one can only imagine a playlist of high-flying, foot-stomping songs by freewheeling tunesmiths from Texas and Mississippi. But in truth, the title refers to a most interesting exhibition at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque.
The show, curated by Lea Anderson, a professor of art at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, explores anything that constitutes the concept of surface. The obvious results are physical attributes, that is, textures — smooth, coarse, shiny, dull, hard, soft, reflective, and so on. But here, one must also consider notions of hidden surfaces, adjoined surfaces, and surfaces that are carved or constructed as well as those that are sewn, sculpted, painted, printed, filmed, and photographed. Some work addresses the intrinsic surfaces of the human condition. Anderson states in the exhibition catalog: “Every touch, even when it’s another human being, is simply an encounter with another surface. ‘What’s going on in there?’ we ask. If we cut through skin we find still more surfaces, more protective layers of tissue, or bone, or membrane, and this continues as far down as the cellular ectoderm. Each door opens to yet another door. And still, we sense that beneath the bounds of the ‘physical’ surface, other mysterious processes bubble and churn.”
There is, indeed, a bubbling and churning going on among the 50-plus works in this show that take up the upper and lower galleries at 516. Just the variety of techniques and materials used is engaging enough. But what I found gratifying is that the majority of artists — 25 were selected by Anderson — allow their work to be open-ended with regard to meaning. The few nonobjective pieces on display typically refer to formal elements such as surface quality, process, design, and color. In other words, expect to see an eclectic mix of work and a variety of ideas that challenge and expand concepts about surface. While most of the work imports a degree of seriousness, some are also quite fun.
Take Anchor, for instance, a multipiece assemblage of recognizable mundane items made from aluminum foil situated on a low plinth by collaborative artists Rhonda Weppler from San Francisco and Trevor Mahovsky of Toronto. Just the fact that these folks spent their time manipulating aluminum foil into shimmering, silver-colored trompe l’oeil objects makes you smile — the surface effect dazzles you. It’s hard to believe that the crushed grocery cart along with the loosely distributed debris surrounding it — tableware, skeleton keys, hand tools, a vanity mirror, a model train car, a tuning fork, a protractor, scissors, a door hinge, and a large platter — aren’t the real deal spray painted with Krylon. The urge to pick something up to verify its constitution — foil, not solid metal — is irresistible, but nearby signage requests you not do so. Aside from the remarkable fruits of their labor, Weppler and Mahovsky’s piece attests to an underlying storyline about the socioeconomic condition of homelessness, if not consumerism — the weight of which many of us bear.
Another piece that solicits a grin — and a roll of the eyes — is The Nomadik Harvest Dress (part of the Urban Foragers series) by Nicole Dextras of Vancouver, British Columbia. To fully experience it, you have to stand outside the gallery, as it is propped up in the window facing the street. Hardly the latest in fashion from Eileen Fisher or Saks Fifth Avenue, Dextras’ wearable art is a patched-together dress of various found fabric and attached accouterments — tiny books, plants, bows, and ribbons — and a headdress fit for a pagan rite. Imagine a fusion of handcrafted attire inspired by Scarlett O’Hara’s makeshift dress of drapery as conceived by Carol Burnett, tweaked by the imagination of filmmaker Tim Burton, and topped by a bad imitation of Carmen Miranda’s headgear. Funny stuff. Maybe too funny. But as quoted in the catalog, Dextras sees her creations as “wearable architectures,” pieces that serve as “portable shelters and gardens.” That’s all fine and good, but this garment wouldn’t cut it as a prom dress let alone at the court of Louis XIV.
The most sobering work in the exhibit is also wearable. All My Little Failuresby Andrew McPhail is a cloak conceived of tens of thousands of adjoined, Band-Aids draped over a life-size nude mannequin. The piece completely covers the standing figure and flows outward, taking up nearly one-quarter of the gallery space it commands. The overall surface pattern created by the linked bandages is lovely, but on an emotional level many viewers will find the piece a manifestation of their own life issues — those that lie beneath the surface. For McPhail, who is based in Hamilton, Ontario, the work is personal. The artist was diagnosed with HIV in 1993, and he conceived his piece as an unwanted burqa that both effaces and proclaims his visibility. Striking in its quiet presence, the piece could have been installed to greater effect with better lighting and a room of its own.
A colorful palette, dancing kinetics, and combined styles of execution populate the surfaces of Fusiform — a large-scale, nonobjective diptych by Albuquerque artist Jessica Kennedy. With an overall scale of 84 by 84 inches, Kennedy’s work immediately draws your attention, and the payoff is a delightful journey through a cornucopia of techniques in acrylic, graphite, and metal leaf on panel. Clean, hard-edge geometrics are intermittently violated by downward drips of paint composed on a background of expressive biomorphic shapes painted in warm pastel colors. Interwoven among the commingled styles — or trapped within them on each panel — are separate, seemingly look-alike black designs that resemble two dancing figures poised face to face clothed in non-Western ceremonial costumes. You might see something entirely different or nothing at all.
Flatlanders & Surface Dwellers offers much more than can be said here. It’s truly an international affair. Along with those cited, Anderson invited artists from South Korea, Canada, and Chile to participate, as well as a respectful showing of artists from across the United States, including five from New Mexico.