Ruins at the Rose

The Lois Foster Exhibition of Boston Area Artists.

At the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

(originally published in The Boston Phoenix, December, 1989)

The seven artists in this year’s exhibition of Boston area artists have all abandoned traditional categories of painting or sculpture to work in hybrid, highly personal materials and forms.  Each artists’ work looks very different from all the others, but all the work conveys a sense of fragmentation and fragility.  There is no common visual language, but many private parts of speech, each one pieced together from the salvaged, damaged fragments of the art of the past.  The 80’s began with big, shiny, self-confident paintings, but they are ending with of shreds and tatters, and anxious premonitions of a ruined world.

Robin Shores has constructed an actual ruin, which fills a small room.  You can walk through it like a tourist visiting a monument, wondering what it looked like when it was whole.  The ruin’s crumbling plaster walls, painted to look like weathered sandstone, are peeling away at the edges, revealing an even older-looking underwall of stone bricks and wooden beams. Shores’s ruin looks like the last relics of some ancient civilization — but a single rusted Miller beer can in a niche archly suggests that it could be our own. A different kind of archaeology is being studied in Ellen Rothenberg’s installation, which looks like a schoolroom of the future, where all the complexities of history are reduced to a handful of words, repeated so many times that the meaning has drained out of them.

Ellen Rothenberg is a performance artist whose props and costumes have always been more interesting than her performances.  She has recognized this and is now concentrating on making objects.  There are sharp yellow pencils with the words `lies’ and `beliefs’ imprinted on them, costumes made from paper, leaves, straw, and cloth, red-handled brooms, and little chalkboards with drawings of women’s bodies.  She also made a series of plaster books with a different material embedded onto the open page of each one – pieces of straw, movie tickets, scraps from a dictionary, bits of newspaper – and an oddly poignant heart-shaped box filled with hundreds of tiny spirals of pale pink pencil shavings.

Perhaps in response to the idea of the end of nature, Terry Albright  has reversed the traditional relationship of nature and art, and is using the real forms of nature to speak the language of art.  Albright uses bittersweet, a kind of vine, and other natural materials to build abstract sculptures that hang on the wall or rest on the floor.  (Her technique is a sophisticated version of the `memory bottles’ that people used to make by gluing to a bottle all the seashells that they found on a trip to the beach).  The vine works as a lyrical line, and bits of tree bark, pine needles, seed pods and leaves read as texture and pattern.

Andrew Zimmerman’s large sculptures wall look like abstract paintings that somehow mutated into mottled, twisted shapes.  `Three Red Loops’ looks organic but not natural, like one of the big red pod-growing plants in remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but now it’s not nature but art that’s growing into something dangerous and strange

Jesseca Ferguson combines old postcards, pages from books, sheet music, maps, bleached bones, twigs, and other small found objects into small collages that have a kind of battered elegance.  They reminded me of the ending of William Gibson‘s science fiction novel Count Zero, when a brilliant computer distills the few remaining fragments of a ruined civilization (our own?) into exquisite little Joseph Cornell-like construction

In Ferguson’s Asile de Nuit, a postcard of a French chateau and a little bundle of silver twigs are attached to an old leather book binding, mounted on an old piece of wood.

Ferguson has drawn over the trees around the castle in the picture, making them darker and denser, so that they look like the impenetrable forest of thorns that grows up around the Sleeping Beauty’s castle.  Her collages are constructed as a series of boxes within boxes and frames within frames, so that the image always seems to be receding in space, fading into the past, vertiginous and unreachable.  These are melancholy images of loss and regret, like Shakespeare’s

“bare, ruined choirs, where late the sweet bird sang”.

Olivia Bernard Wilson makes sculptures from cheesecloth which she saturates in plaster and pigment and then pulls, stretches, wraps, and drapes into large, fluid forms.  Several of them are called biers, and they seem imprinted with the shape of human bodies dragged and carried to some place of rest.  A white bier looks peaceful, but another, leaning against the wall like a charred and tattered flag, conveys a sense of defeat and despair.

Wilson’s sculptures seem seem to come from a time (perhaps the future) of scarcity and war, when people willingly use what little they have to make these vessels.  Perhaps they believe that respect for the dead – and art – will help them cling to precarious life on earth. Nature no longer appears vast and powerful, but fragile and finite, like flowers in a vase.

Meryl Brater‘s handmade books look like ancient texts or palimpsests written in some long-forgotten language which has lost its literal meaning but not its visual power.  Some of her paper books are mounted on the wall like hanging screens;  others are folded up on tables.  They are called Pugillares, after the Roman books made from wooden panels filled with wax.

Brater’s books are densely covered with many overlapping layers of calligraphic handwriting and lyrical drawing in black ink, with flashes of color – deep, rich reds and silky blues – gleaming through the dark ground, like goldfish swimming in a pond.  Her unreadable writing has a fragile, mysterious beauty that transcends the ravages of time.

(Also see my Letter to the Rose Art Museum: Meryl at the Rose.)

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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