Playing with Abstraction

Semantics’ latest exhibition abstracts everyday life

The body of work on display in Semantics Gallery is, at first sight, as inexplicable as the show’s title suggests: She Keeps It In Play/They Don’t Know What To Call It. As abstract paintings, drawings and sculptures, the works leave much to the imagination but they don’t entirely defy explanation.

Curator Matt Morris (also a CityBeat contributing writer) set out to prove that abstract art is part of everyday life. The art is comprised of elements such as line, shape and color that exist in the natural world, and for this reason the work is not set apart from the world we live in. Morris invited artists Tracy Featherstone, Arthur Menezes Brum, Lindsey Whittle, Amy Scarpello and Paige Williams to be playful in this exhibit.

Featherstone examines the fragility of the life and our false senses of security. No matter how many steel-reinforced beams hold our buildings together, things fall apart.

I recently interviewed Featherstone via e-mail and she wrote of a trip to Ghana as an influence. She observed Ghanaians building their homes by hand. This stuck with her because she was in the process of buying her own home. Featherstone watched as people used palm fronds and mud to build walls and roofs. Meanwhile, someone had long since built her future home, using heavy machinery. We build our homes from brick and mortar, but Featherstone wondered if this makes them any more stable than mud and palm fronds.

“The more I thought the more I realized that really everything is tentative and fragile,” Featherstone says. “The Ghanaians just had a way of accepting this and it was more outwardly apparent. In the U.S. we try to surround ourselves with objects and structure to feel stable. Of course this is nothing we can really control.”

Featherstone’s sculpture, “Recovery Period,” makes peace with that which we cannot control. It accepts that sometimes the homes we build to protect us are no match for the wrath of nature. The sturdiest elements in “Recovery Period” are not the two-by-fours that Featherstone nailed together but the folded blankets and the large papier-mché egg that give the sculpture its grounding. The blankets, stacked behind the fence, look like they stand the greatest chance of coming out of a disaster unscathed. We wrap ourselves in blankets; they are a hiding place, even a cocoon. The egg and the blankets are strong symbols of motherhood and the womb. The sculpture communicates a delicate balance between strength and instability, between that which we control and the chaos of the natural world.

Williams, too, achieves balance in her paintings and drawings. Like Featherstone’s sculpture, this delicate balancing act involves dichotomies of resilience and vulnerability, flaws and perfection.

Her abstract shapes are positioned like body language on the canvas and she describes them as “the space between us.” Williams has a way of using common phrases and clichés in unexpected ways.

“I see shapes as having human characteristics,” she writes via e-mail.

In “Thoughts of You” a collection of five small drawings depicts a rising and falling pattern, like a wave. Williams painted “Much Like Today” in muted colors that give the tranquil feeling of an overcast day.

“All These Things” is broken into three panels with a green square, a graphite scribble and a checkered pattern. The painting feels like a break-up. The Waterboys’ lyrics come to mind: “All the things that she gave me, where do I put them? Where can I hide them?”

In “Comb: To Search Thoroughly,” the horizontal black lines begin to look like the teeth of a comb because the title causes these non-objective lines to take on that character. Without the title, they might elicit an entirely different reaction in the viewer, one that is perhaps visceral and more honest.

Scarpello’s drawing, “Variation,” is a sparse gathering of gray strokes on white paper. They are another good illustration of Williams’ concept of “the space between us.” Scarpello says she wonders what it would be like to disappear. She achieves this in “Variation.”

Her drawing nearly vanishes as I look at it. The artist has become fascinated with glacial striations, the gouges in bedrock that evidence the glacier’s movement. Long after the glacier melts away, these marks remain.

Scarpello is interested in how poet Elizabeth Bishop connected icebergs to the human soul in her writing: “Icebergs behoove the soul (both being self-made from elements least visible) to see themselves: fleshed, fair, erected, indivisible.”

According to Scarpello, there is a “fleeting, incontainable spirit” at the core of our being. “I want my work to find and contain that. To fade in and out, and slowly dissolve away.”

SHE KEEPS IT IN PLAY/THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT TO CALL IT will be on display at Semantics Gallery (1107 Harrison Ave., Brighton) through May 30. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
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