Concepts of Nature and Time on Display at List Gallery’s Art Faculty and Staff Exhibition

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The List Gallery’s latest exhibition, a kaleidoscopic display featuring work by the Department of Art Faculty and Staff, opened on Tuesday with a gallery talk and reception. The exhibition is an unusual event for the List, added to supplement the List’s usual line-up of four outside artists a year. Nine faculty and staff each contributed two to four pieces, ranging from oils on canvas to digital prints to painted ceramics.

Each unique work stands alone but also subtly jives with its neighbors. Andrea Packard, the curator of the List Gallery as well as a contributor to the exhibition, sees echoes of certain shapes, colors, and themes within the exhibition. “[A] common thread among us is an interest in the way we perceive nature and reinterpret it,” she said. The works on display also “ask you to slow down,” she said.

“We reflect on the past [and] the passage of time,” Packard said, noting strains of sentiment as subject matter in many pieces as well as the gradual processes of creation behind each carving or collage.

For instance, Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter’s two sculptural ceramic forms are inspired by African-American culture and gardens in the American South and her own family’s northward migration. Ramshackle Fence dangles with bottles, a small house, a large clothespin, a metal can, and more miscellaneous decoration. The work evokes an “aesthetic of that which we cobble together out of necessity but which then takes on a sort of beauty of its own,” Packard said.

In Ervin and Cornelius Holifield rounded, tender, plump beans perch on a textured background. Carpenter has plans to conduct more first-hand research in the South to further grasp the feeling of these plots of land and these families, relics of a seemingly different time that persists into the present. “Carpenter’s work is very much a reflection on her past and her family and her upbringing and the things […] she questions,” said Randall Exon, professor of studio art and studio art coordinator, whose careful oils also evoke personal spaces that seem to be disappearing at the edges.

Exon and his wife travel to Ireland every year, and he has always been drawn to a certain chair in their neighbors’ cottage that reminded him of its owner, Margaret. “The character of the chair is who she in some ways,” he said. The delicate portraits that result from this fascination are cloaked in light. The chair seems to be waiting for somebody. It seems to be counting its memories.

Another oil painting, Girl with Muskie, depicts a young girl clutching a fish, an invented memory constructed from the stories Exon would hear about the Missouri River from his Midwestern family. “You’ll go to these deep lakes in Minnesota to fish for the Muskie,” he said, pointing out that this type of fish is ancient – in fact prehistoric. The portrait is modeled after photographs Exon has seen of his family and it feels historical, weighted with the gravity of the past and portraits of serious people standing in front of backgrounds that are already beginning to fade.

Exon’s fourth piece in the exhibition, White Rudder, also incorporates his own sense of the past. “I was taken with this rudder,” he said. “It sort of reminds me of a plow […] coming from the Midwest, I guess that’s how I saw it.” The painting is structurally enticing, depicting old-fashioned wooden Irish boats, the sort one would never see in the States. Exon enjoyed “thinking about the number of nautical miles that thing has got on it” as he worked, bringing the past into the present of a picture.

“I believe that every artist in the show has one thing in common – the desire to draw upon past experience in a way to riff on what they’re doing now,” Exon said. Dealing with the past is dangerous, he pointed out, due to the Siren’s call of nostalgia. “I think there is a difference between maudlin sentimentality and sentiment,” he said. However, he makes clear that “to avoid sentiment is to avoid a whole range of emotions and meanings associated with those emotions.”

Each artist in the exhibition plays with time in different ways. Assistant Professor of Studio Art Logan Grider’s abstract encaustics on wood panels were created through a process of both addition and subtraction, layers of painted being added and scraped away, built up over time. “There’s a poetry in the process,” Packard said, referring not only to Grider’s laborious work but the time-consuming processes of every showcased artist.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Studio Art Jake Beckman’s pieces, too, created from wood, resin, gesso, and graphite, show a clear timeline of excavation and creation. Studio Art Technician Doug Herren’s anthropomorphic figures, made of ceramic and enamel paint, seem to embody a sense of “industrial history,” Packard said, referring to the figures’ old-fashioned shapes. The surfaces of these sculptures are worn down intentionally. They portray a sense of “freshness and vibrancy” as well as “wear and tear,” Packard said. “You find yourself enjoying both and reflecting on the passage of time,” she said.

Visiting Assistant Professor Ron Tarver’s prints were made by scanning objects directly into a scanner and then printing them on rice paper. “They’re as much about the passage of time and the act of translating nature as nature itself,” Packard said.

Professor of Studio Art Brian Meunier’s visceral, textured sculptures are inspired by his recent trip to Asia and memories of fantastical natural shapes and creatures.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Studio Arts Mary Phelan’s dark forested scenes are overlayed by ancient-looking text, granting them a historical air. “When we look at nature, we never really look at it fresh, we look at it through the lens of what we know,” Packard said. This lens, evoked physically by Phelan’s text, changes over time. This theme is also evident in Packard’s own work, especially her collages, collections of scraps of material that each hold different memories and stories. They strive to mirror the complexity and beauty of perception itself, which is built up over time, fed by “observations and experiences,” Packard said.

Thinking about themes of time and accumulation, walking through the gallery and gazing at the products of a million memories and miniscule motions, I was reminded of The Pitch Drop Experiment, the world’s longest continuously-running lab experiment. This drama-less configuration of pitch in a funnel was first set up in 1927 by Professor Thomas Parnell at the University of Queensland in order to measure the viscosity of bitumen, a liquid that flows excruciatingly slowly at room temperature. In fact, only eight drops have fallen since. Nobody has ever witnessed a drop fall, but 2013 is the year number nine is predicted to wrench itself towards the earth.

The passage of time is not something most people are able to observe – it always seems to happen when we’re asleep or turned away. But sometimes it is valuable to make the invisible visible, to examine the incomprehensible, to turn towards the funnel, but instead of anxiously waiting for the next drop, to contemplate the beauty of the grand experiment. To approach time as something to puzzle over and turn into art, not something to fear.

None of the works in this exhibition is trying to slow down or speed up a natural process. They are not transfixed by the anticipation of the next drop but of the pitch of life itself. By acknowledging the terrible crawl of time they are able to, to some degree, turn their eyes towards a broader world.

I hope our eyes will be on works of art like those on display at the List when the next drop dislodges. I hope no one is there to see its inevitable fall.

The exhibition will take place March 5 – April 10, 2013. Gallery hours are Tuesdays–Sundays, Noon–5 p.m. Admission is free and all are welcome.

Photos by Frank Song/The Daily Gazette


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