If you’re a lawyer or a nurse or a social worker or a professor of romance languages, you probably haven’t heard of Jill Slosburg-Ackerman. If you’re an artist, you probably have. And not just because she’s a veteran of the Boston arts scene and a mainstay in the 3-D department at Massachusetts College of Art. Jill Slosburg-Ackerman is an artist’s artist — which does not mean her appeal is rarefied or her sculpture requires you to be a connoisseurship to appreciate it. Think of a doctor’s doctor or a favorite restaurant of gourmet chefs — those are the physicians you want when you’re in trouble, the eateries when you’re after a memorable meal. Slosburg-Ackerman, whose work is both visceral and transcendent, gutsy and refined, orderly and outrageous, makes people who devote their lives to making art stop dead in their tracks. The rest of us get to tag along.
Slosburg-Ackerman’s approach to sculpture is as unusual as it is synthetic. She combines pedestrian, manufactured objects — a flimsy metal typing table, a ready-made Akia shelf, a chrome-and-Formica cutting-board bench circa 1960 — with pieces of wood that she has obsessively carved and gouged, chiseled, and smoothed until the two belong to each other: harmony from discord, relationships from dissimilarities, integration from antitheses. The result is sculpture that continually surprises, a never-ending series of unexpected connections between colors and contours, textures and values.
What does it mean that a flea-market-worthy typing table has been joined to what looks like a rough tree stump shaped like an elephant’s leg in Amanuensis? What does it mean that a store-bought shelf unit appears exactly as it did the day of its purchase — except for the gnarled, overly painted tree root that sprouts from its underside in Restless Shelf #16? What does it mean that an antler-shaped piece of wood as ornately altered as a scholar’s rock extends like a solitary wing from a manufactured base of plastic and plexiglass in Yellow Lesson?
For one thing, it means that the divisions most of us fall into thoughtlessly and hourly between indoors and outdoors, real and unreal, phony and true, utilitarian and fanciful, have been brought together in each of these creations. I don’t know what it’s like to have a Slosburg-Ackerman sculpture in my house, but I can imagine there would be a constant tension about putting it to use. Each one of her three-dimensional works invites you, dares you, to find a working place for it (a secret corner, since you’ll want it all to yourself). In other words, her work confronts another division most of us are happy to accommodate without a second thought, the one between art as the stuff of contemplation and stillness and reverence and art as the material and promise of our conscious, day-to-day lives. Is it a table or a symbol, a cutting board or a statement, a shelf or an ¾sthetic reverie?
The extra (and extra-thick) leg that Amanuensis sprouts — imagine a tornado wedging a gray metal typing table into a tree stump that just happened to be the same height — isn’t the only wooden part of the sculpture. On the top of Amanuensis lies an intricately grooved, elliptical wooden dumbbell. It looks like Siamese bowling pins joined at the neck or a rolling pin with portly handles. However you think of it, the dumbbell lies unattached to its base; you could place it anywhere, but as it rests, one bulbous end lies on the metal of the typing table while the other rests on the brief lip of wood that swells beneath the table to form its fourth, elephantine leg. As it happens, that mysterious ancillary leg was formed from the shavings that fell away in the process of carving the dumbbell.
So there you have it: a pedestrian piece of manufactured metal that’s been joined to a very differently manufactured mound of wood residue. Both are capped by a portable, abstract sculpture that still sports attributes of an assembly-line product. (Much as it’s unidentifiable, it still looks like an old-fashioned tool.) Further, the surface of the metal table has started to rust, and the brittle, brown flakes of its oxidation resemble in contour and hue the surface of the supplementary leg.
The end result is a work of exquisite imperfection in which the painstakingly wrought wears the mask of decay, where decay itself is elevated to the dignity of sculpture, where originality gets mixed up with prefabricated, where no part looks seamless or smooth or inviting to the touch. Yet Amanuensis comes across as balanced and playful, earthy and contrived. Each of its three aspects, metal, wood shaving, and wood, becomes an amanuensis, a helper, in appreciating the other two.
In fact, exquisite imperfection marks all of Slosburg-Ackerman’s sculpture — its appeal and its edginess, its lofty vulgarity. (Her mixed-media drawings — they look like Rorschach tests giving birth to colorful clouds that are about to turn into genies — tend more toward the exquisite.) One of the series represented in the exhibit, Restless Shelves, involves actual shelving — single units or multiple grids, store-bought or crafted by the artist — that leeches into or otherwise gives rise to strange, aberrant, attached fungal shapes. Think Alien-meets-Hold-Everything. In Restless Shelf #16, navy-blue plastic and light-beech-wood veneer form an unprepossessing shelving unit — except for the intricately tangled form bulging beneath the underside of its lowest level. Part truffle, part intestinal spill, the shape proves almost sickeningly biological, alternately suggesting driftwood and a tumor. Noteworthy is the color it’s painted — a pale, derivative blue, as if the industrial navy-blue plastic above had weakened and mutated into some spherical stalactite. The effect is alternately humorous and disturbing, nauseating and riveting. For one thing, the Tasmanian devil of a form makes the rectilinear shelving above seem silly and frail. For all the latter’s formality and precision, the energy lies in the renegade wart. At the same time, the shelf’s formality and precision offer a retreat from the slippery, unpredictable, complex growth that delights in its ambiguity. Squares above meet chaos below, and in both zones, natural and unnatural merge: plastic over particle board above, paint over tree root below. And joined as they are — the unit can still function as a complete shelf — the contradictions become the stuff of our own self-examination. Slosburg-Ackerman makes us address the compatibility and the proximity of what we ordinarily insist on keeping apart, order and disorder, need and waste, purposefulness and dreams.
STEVE HOLLINGER takes the notion of imperfection to a place no less exquisite than does Slosburg-Ackerman, but his manner of marrying the natural and the machine-made is entirely different. Hollinger’s sculpture might best be described as an effort to reinvent the meaning of the phrase "motion pictures."
When I encountered Hollinger’s work for the first time in last year’s DeCordova Annual, his motion pictures represented miniature re-creations of natural phenomena: the skeleton of a solar-powered bat mimicking flight (Bat); a tiny, flat marionette of a human figure going through the motions of playing a musical instrument (Fiddler); a disembodied eye turning in a manufactured socket (Sentinel). In the mere space of a year, his art has grown in depth and complexity. The delight he’s always delivered goes undiminished in the new work, but his creations now enjoy a more visceral as well as a more emotional appeal. It’s as though, having passed his own tests as an inventor and an engineer, he were now free to apply those skills to more social concerns.
At first glance, Man with Flowers looks like the inside of a grandfather clock, with its large (about two feet across) burnished copper wheel that spins at the end of copper spokes radiating from a hub of similarly elegant cogs. But you quickly lose sight of the overall design, drawn in by the Chaplin-esque drama that magically takes place on a small square of glass suspended above the wheel’s uppermost reach. On the glass, we watch a hatted figure of a man approach someone we do not see with a bouquet of flowers hidden behind his back. He walks forward, genuflects, lowers his head, proffers the flowers, and then steps back to the first gesture of his courtship. Beyond the technical wizardry of the device (microchips, solar panels, every movement of the man cut stencil-like into the circumference of the wheel), the perpetual, one-sided courtship grows strangely poignant, a mechanized Orpheus forever seeking his Euryidice.
No less extraordinary is Cenotaph. You look inside its glass prism and watch a sword-wielding man (like Man with Flowers, he’s a mechanized silhouette) act out movements of stylized derring-do as the background behind him grows ominous and molten. In Supercollider, the figure of a man in one small screen runs eternally in the direction of the figure of a woman who’s running toward the man in a proximate but separate screen.
Almost all of Steve Hollinger’s kinetic sculptures are triggered into action by sunlight, a fitting reminder that the drama of his art is a reflection of the awkward drama of our lives.
"Jill Slosburg-Ackerman: Sculpture and Sculpted Drawings"
At Judy Ann Goldman Fine Art, 14 Newbury Street in Boston, through January 9.
"Steve Hollinger: Borrowed Time"
At Chase Gallery,129 Newbury Street in Boston, through December 31.
Charlie Chaplin meets the Sierra Club in the forlorn, whimsical, environmentally attuned photographs of Robert ParkeHarrison, whose two current shows — one at the DeCordova Museum and the other, in collaboration with his wife, Shana ParkeHarrison, at the Bernard Toale Gallery — pay tribute to an artist whose inventiveness and vision are bound up with a sense of political and spiritual mission. If ParkeHarrison weren’t an artist, he’d be a statesman or a priest.
A quixotic quest — made all the more sad and comical by the frequent inclusion of scrappy, make-believe, 19th-century-looking mechanical equipment — runs through much of ParkeHarrison’s imagery. In a typical photograph, a solitary man in a wrinkled suit and white dress shirt — the artist himself — is righting some wrong done to nature. Take Cloud Cleaner, from one of the most powerful of ParkeHarrison’s series, "Earth Elegies (1999–2000)." Against a backdrop that straddles the atmosphere of a dream and the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, the character in the foreground has dutifully arrived with his preposterous cleaning supplies: ladder, bucket, tree branch. He’s about to scrub the sooty, palpable cloud that hovers a few feet overhead.
Cloud Cleaner draws its strength in part from the multiple intersections at which it stands: pathetic and eager, ridiculous and purposeful, zealous and doomed, silly and serious. But there’s more than emotional complexity to ParkeHarrison’s work. One of his hallmarks is the ability to suggest the utter interiority of the mind (every picture could be a still from a nightmare) while offering a panoramic, desolate view that suggests the entirety of the earth. We’re at once inside and outside, in somebody’s head and outdoors. Both land and sky imply infinity in a ParkeHarrison photo; an uninterrupted horizon of tundra or desert or Ground Zero will extend in the background, transforming whatever the character is doing into the activities of the last man on the planet. And it’s in that evocation of the last man or the only man that these images resonate. They’re both private and public, reveries and actions. The places are real; they just don’t happen to exist.
The actions of ParkeHarrison’s character turn out to be the most salient feature of his works, more so than the technical wizardry required of their making or their compositional characteristics or their exquisite detail and tonal variation. In that sense, ParkeHarrison is like an old-fashioned storyteller. His images are sepia-toned film stills from earth’s moving picture, tragic comedies predicated on the nobility and the futility of one person’s efforts to rescue Mother Earth. Mending the Earth — the artist delights in imaginative fulfillments of literal titles — involves the application of a giant sewing needle (threaded with a string that could pull in a whale) to a tear in the earth’s surface. The land tailor looks as if he were stitching together two halves of a stretch of recently cooled lava. Gas appears to rise up from the fissure in the distance; not so much as a tumbleweed relieves the vista of its barrenness. What’s more, ParkeHarrison’s visible absorption as a character in Mending the Earth — his eyes concentrate on the rip in the ground; his hand delicately rests on the tear; his body crouches in a position that would allow him to penetrate the rocky land with his javelin-sized needle — makes him a recording artist of his own performances. Cindy Sherman’s seminal "Untitled Film Stills" explore the mutability of the self. Robert ParkeHarrison offers up an unchanging self in the service of combatting devastation to the globe.
But cleaning clouds, repairing land, distributing seeds (Pollination, The Sower), or creating an alternative earth (Kingdom) is only part of this character’s rŽsumŽ. An effort to belong to and participate in the natural world forms another major theme in ParkeHarrison’s photographs, and those images frequently attain eloquence and foreboding. Night Garden sees the photographer performer (performographer?) tenderly cupping soil around a low-slung plant that happens to be an incandescent light. In Nocturne, the artist lies in a fetal position at the center of a crude nest on a forest floor. More often, though, the character aims to be air-bound or air-producing or aerated. In several, he’s simply trying to fly. Da Vinci’s Wings finds ParkeHarrison balanced on a dead tree while outfitted in a canvas-and-twig version of Leonardo’s sketches for flying with manufactured wings. In Flying Lesson, he goes farther. The man in the middle of the photograph flaps his arms; each of his wrists connects by string to nine sky-borne birds, and for a moment it might occur to you that the figure is just thin enough and the birds are just strong enough for him to levitate. (A caged bird is strapped to his left wrist — a parallel to his own earthboundness?)
Although Visitation also treats the theme of flight and the desire to participate in the natural world, it represents a significant departure for ParkeHarrison, since he’s not the performer. The dwarfed figure of our Chaplin-esque auteur brings a bouquet of flowers — desiccated, of course — to the remains of a crash victim. Said remains are a towering, papery wing, so one presumes the victim is Icarus. Not only is there a direct allusion to mythology here, but ParkeHarrison has allowed somebody else — albeit somebody who’s vestigial and dead— into his frame. For once, there’s a dialogue with another creature.
One of my favorite ParkeHarrison photos is Windwriting, an effort to internalize and channel and thereby "write" air. The photographer actor writes outdoors into a book almost as big as his body. His writing instrument is also gigantic, a crude pen that’s attached by strings to eight towering, unbelievable plants — they look like leftovers from a Edward D. Wood Jr. flick. The author sports a metallic cap topped by a simple weathervane.
Compared with, say, Skyscrapers, in which 10 ParkeHarrison clones move across a wasteland where pencil-thin branchless and leafless trees extend like wires up to Heaven, Windwriting seems less polemical, less didactic. The best of ParkeHarrison’s images forget their high-minded action-hero intentions and give way to the pure playfulness of their inception — in Forestbed, our hero’s sleeping body lies on a mattress that balances magically atop a bunch of twigs. The environmental activist is never absent from ParkeHarrison’s imagery, but to see both the DeCordova exhibit and his Bernard Toale Galley collaborations with Shana (whose involvement in her husband’s photography has grown to the point that she shares billing in the newest work at the Toale) is to wish that the artist placed greater trust in his own politics. Sometimes there’s a kind of political correctness, an a priori insistence on what a picture should "say" as opposed to what you find out in the process of making it.
No such process takes place in Turning to Spring, which is on view at both venues. The earth’s surface has been pulled back like a thin rug to reveal a network of interlocking metal cogs while the figure of ParkeHarrison maneuvers a huge wrench; he’s fixing the ground. Compare that with Earth Elegies at the DeCordova, in which the artist attempts to push a 10-foot-tall typewriter ball, the kind that used to spin at the center of IBM Selectrics, across a vast empty field. Or hold it up against Burn Season at the Toale, in which the sleeping figure of the artist drifts on a bed that’s floating on a placid sea. No one answer explains the meaning of either image. These latter two works are not one-liners but narratives — imaginative, mysterious, and continuously captivating.
"Robert ParkeHarrison: The Architect’s Brother"
At the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, through January 2.
"Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison: New Works"
At Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison Avenue, Boston, through October 16.
Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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