Friday, November 14, 2014

Symptomatic Constant: Julie Schenkelberg, by Robert Sparrow Jones, Michigan Quarterly Review, November, 2014

The first tinge of autumn spiked the air as the streets of downtown Grand Rapids teemed with artgoers for ArtPrize, 2014. A curious line had already formed down Ionia Street, excitedly inching toward the doors of the old Morton House which was once an opulent 1920s hotel. After bankruptcy and a stint as rent-subsidized housing, the place has been vacant and boarded up, save for this year’s excellent SiTE:LAB exhibition.
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Installation View 1, SiTELAB at ArtPrize, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Installation View 1,
SiTE:LAB at ArtPrize, 2014
When I entered the multistoried ghost of a hotel, a continuous dank breeze pushed against the inside corridor, a short and dark walk under disintegrating ceilings with ominous gaping steel-meshed holes and crumpling plaster corners. The central lobby then opened up to a spectacularly dusty and ambient light where, encompassed by the walls of curling paint, Julie Schenkelberg’s sublime installation “Symptomatic Constant” sat corpulently like a shipwreck.
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Detail, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Detail, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Piano View, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Piano View, 2014
Within the materials lies Schenkelberg’s remarkable talent for recapturing wonder. “Symptomatic Constant” is a massive work. It starts as rubble on the marble floor with plaster dust and shards of ceramic, resembling a shore of beach glass, then steadily the work grows up into the high space of the lobby’s ceiling with fabric draped from an old cast-iron heating register. Schenkelberg builds in layers with architectural salvage culled from the site itself as well as local thrifting. Her cultural archeology is distinctive in its details and restless as the whole of her ship-like installation.
Schenkelberg is a collector. She has an eye for timelessness in the materials she selects and remains an architect of renewal. This is not a matter of optimism, or recovery in any conventional sense. Rather, her voice in this work feels like that of survival, which is manifest in her abstracted ship-run-aground form. In materials, I feel her central obsession is not to preserve the past but rather to borrow it, paint with it, use it as her expression. Her incredible wonder of the antiquation plays on the collective memory of our object’s past. She rescues the perishing for a reason. The curation of materials contains a spirit, a ghost, a memory. Whether it be a worn-out grand piano (original to the hotel) or stacks of indiscrete linens, the materials resonate above their own presence. Schenkelberg’s work here is an adventure, comprised of her poetic collections without being precious. She acts as a poet who describes with pale, faded metaphors to build a wonderfully strange atmosphere.
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Detail 3, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Detail 3, 2014
Looking at her work, you can envision Schenkelberg developing a specific language of things in new and surprising ways like a painter. She has a rich vocabulary of ethereal, antiquated items, such as milk glass, stacked valises, and tattered leather-bound books. She amends them with chalky robin’s egg blue and pink pastel paint the consistency of cake icing, taken from the cues of a delicately crumbling architecture. Rendered further, you can see the artist’s expression in the repetition of drilled holes, slashing cut marks, and smashed ceramic. Her hand denotes an authority that immediately gains the viewer’s trust. Her fiction envelops us in a sublimity, where even the heavy mildew fragrance of wet plaster from the old hotel’s depths adds to the authenticity.
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Detail 4, SiTE:LAB at ArtPrize, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Detail 4,
SiTE:LAB at ArtPrize, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Detail 6, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Detail 6, 2014
While the mythic analogies swelled up in a hull of archaic architectural sinew, I wondered what side of the story we may bring ourselves. This fiction is a dazzle but can offer more than just a touch of fatalism. It quickly brought to mind, “The Raft of Medusa,” 1818-1819, Théodore Géricault’s iconic masterpiece of French Romanticism. Géricault’s painting depicts the aftermath of a warship wreck off the coast of Senegal in 1816. Due to a shortage of lifeboats, 147 people were left behind to fend for themselves on a makeshift raft. They drifted for 13 days before the rescue of only 10 survivors. The disaster worsened by starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism that ensued and each of the figures in the painting tells the story. Géricault assiduously researched the horrific, then contemporary, incident and was able to question survivors. He even sketched them as well. Géricault built wax models and figurines and had the original carpenter of the Medusa build a scale model of the raft. He studied cadavers and body parts, visited hospitals and beaches—there is no mistaking his obsession for detail in his many sketches. It’s famously captured in the final larger-than-life painting as two intersecting pyramids of figures. On the left side, death is darkly descending in the expiration of life from an improvised mast against a foreboding weather system. On the right is hope in the ascension of bodies to the waving flag at a passing ship. Horrific and fascinating. There is no real resolve. Perhaps there is just a tinge of hope in the light and passing distant ship.
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Detail 2, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Detail 2, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Front View, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Front View, 2014
Schenkelberg is less topical in her shipwreck, but her intention and process are as tenuous, just as obsessed. Julie Schenkelberg grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, surrounded by the beauty of decaying architecture, slate-gray skies, and rusted steel. Her relentless fascination is evident in her process of seeking out and curating distinct objects. Yes, these items are ubiquitous except these objects carry a history, these objects have souls. Scrap metal yards, thrift shops, estate sales, construction dumpsters, attics, and basements—her preparation is an active and continuous search. After gathering the appropriate materials she organizes by size, color, material, like a gigantic painter’s palette.
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Detail 5, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Detail 5, 2014
It makes sense to prepare for something this grand. Becoming intimate with the materials, Schenkelberg understands their properties physically and unveils their spirit. When they are pulled from the palette, each component is sensitive to space, attuned to the unique surroundings at hand in the creation of a sublime work both beautiful and frightening. Gericult worked hard in the gathering, he used it in a realistic style, but ultimately he was after raw emotion. Schenkelberg’s emotion is palatable in the tactile. She creates moments of startling presence where everyday facts are magical, visual in our own memory.
Morton Hotel, Mezzanine Stairwell.
Morton Hotel, Mezzanine Stairwell.
Morton Hotel, Mezzanine Stairwell.
Morton Hotel, Mezzanine Stairwell.
To the front of the lobby, sweeping staircases with Art Deco railings lead to several mezzanine level spaces with balconies overlooking the ballroom like porticos from the heavens. Beneath the fading, elaborate, delicately frescoed ceilings, “Symptomatic Constant,” exquisite in its construction of reclaimed detritus, lies romantically shipwrecked on the dusty travertine marble floor. Here are two intersecting pyramids: a crumpled ground plane elegantly shifting in tone and a pyramid of architecture thrusting upward in a hull and a sail—uncertain and intensive. From this vantage, it was appropriate to watch as patrons, beneath the ruined sky of repeated arches, discover its evasive edges. “Symptomatic Constant” resonates on this scale, alluding to a work even more vast and disquieting. It reminds us that loss is profound and that the conclusion, though ethereal, is ultimately survival in the ascension.
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant", Bird's-Eye View, 2014
Julie Schenkelberg, “Symptomatic Constant”, Bird’s-Eye View, 2014

Landscape as Process: The Art of Susan Goethel Campbell, by Robert Sparrow Jones, Michigan Quarterly Review, October, 2014

Susan Goethel Campbell, an environmentalist at the core, is a multidisciplinary artist who is deeply steeped in tradition and profoundly connected to nature. Her work is a slowly evolving dance devoted to researching, collecting data, and balancing two or three projects in different forms of completion at once. She has worked with scientists and meteorologists, but her work is far from rigid. In fact, her ideas are manifested in atmospheric ways that align our thoughts, emotions, and actions with nature.
With her large floor installation, Resisting Certainty at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Campbell takes the art of horticulture and ingeniously turns all conventions upside down. Inverted, natural sod tiles are used as the building blocks of a larger grid. This grid intersects, overlapping three larger, flat geometric planes. The planes are dark and ominous, hovering an inch from the floor and evoking a sense of groundlessness with the shifting change of environment. Together, the organic and the synthetic push our vantage to a further point. In this atmosphere, Campbell provides us with a rich, intuitive approach to discovering and meeting nature with its patterns. These relationships are not only intellectually stimulating, but also emotionally and spiritually satisfying.
Susan Goethel Campbell in her Detroit Landscape, 2014
Susan Goethel Campbell in her Detroit Landscape, 2014
As Campbell was growing up in the new suburb of East Grand Rapids, Michigan, the idea of “landscape as a process” left a lasting impression on her. She played freely in the open fields among sumac, milkweed, and wild pheasants. In her exploration, deep visceral observations encompassed life and death within the drama of seasons. She understood that change also included the cultural environment that was being built. The hushed bucolic spaces and the emergent landscape would inform the center of her future work.
“The infrastructure for future housing already existed in the landscape and I thought of this as one giant playfield. Two huge, raised sewers were at the bottom of a hill where I used to go sledding. They had raised cement caps with ladders that allowed you to climb down into the sewer. During the summer months, I would climb inside where it was cool and explore what I thought was a ‘natural’ underground river. Seasonal change included not only flowering plants, but newly erected wooden armatures that dotted open fields. The framing for a new house imposed a type of geometry on my field of vision where earth and sky were bracketed by angles and planes. The smell of new lumber mingled with the smell of earth. These early experiences influenced my art and process.”
Ironically, when Susan moved to Detroit as an adult in the early 1980′s, just as many open fields existed in the city as did in her childhood landscape. And much like her youthful experience, wild pheasants were seen on deserted roads and steam vaporized from lone sewer holes. While gravity and weather dissolved houses into the earth, nature overwhelmed vast plots with trees taking root in the eaves of derelict buildings. These lasting experiences in nature are apparent in the materials and methodologies Campbell uses in Resisting Certainty. Each sod tile is molded by a vacuum-formed plastic container. Campbell grows these in her Detroit studio, tending to them for several months at a time. However, against all good horticulture practice, she allows the grass to become root-bound. By using this process, the underneath is conformed into a near perfect positive, including a symbolic grid.
Up close, the sod tiles are wonderful to explore. Constricted, the roots intricately form a natural weaving in the ribs and crevices. Around the edges, individual tiles softy sweep away like the wheat fields from Campbell’s childhood. In the center of the tiles are raised flat circles. The circle is repeated in the sod tiles left upright. This orientation allows their square-constricted bottoms to become obscured after the long grass has naturally wilted outward. The idea represented here is certainly the cycles of change. It is also the attempt to include green space in urban planning, city parks, and perhaps in the center of all communities. This motif is repeated in smaller, rolled sod tiles.
The type of natural material Campbell cultivates is a grass that, against all odds, finds a home in the rooftops of dilapidated buildings. It is a weed that thrives in the poorest of soil and is able to survive the harshest of weather conditions. We find this type of grass waist-high in a neglected plot of suburbia.
Is this blatant commentary of our attempt to coexist with nature? Or is it a failing attempt to control nature without any regard for sustainability? I don’t think the work is didactic at all. Campbell is using an appropriate symbolic building block, a micro meditation of natural and artificial environment. The work on a whole arouses an emotional response stemming deeply from the environment of our youth.
Susan Goethel Campbell, "Resisting Certainty"  2014, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Susan Goethel Campbell, “Resisting Certainty”
2014, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Resisting Certainty is informed by the constructs of our cultural landscape. Information, by way of data, charts, graphs, and mass-produced construction are distilled into vacillating grounds of synthetic and organic planes, as a large topographical map. Yet, our movement through the installation is graceful, controlled by Campbell’s aesthetic ability. She clearly considers social interaction and bodily movement. At once I felt winged and limberly circling. Discovery was offered at every turn. Detail beckoned attention, banking around and through implied paths of organic and engineered spaces.
“My relationship to landscape has to do with impermanence, change and movement. My earliest influences and emotional epiphanies came from dance rather than visual art. The performances of Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, and Eric Hawkins were visual distillations of the body in time. This spoke to me. The movement was minimal, repetitious and sometimes glacial. In my late 20’s I fell in love with the Butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku. Their reference to the ground plane in their dance led me to consider cycles of renewal and decay in the landscape. This encompasses the built environment.”
Campbell takes tradition and brings it into the current era. Her manipulation of landscape is an elegant form of printmaking. The plastic container is her matrix and every sod tile is a multiple, therefore a document of the container. Campbell earned a master’s degree in printmaking from Cranbrook Academy of Art. She has been awarded printmaking residencies in Belgium and Germany. She also taught studio art for 15 years at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. I think that printmaking is an appropriate adaptation here.
“Throughout my artistic career, I have been interested in process and the intersection of nature and culture. Trained as a printmaker, the idea of recording and transferring marks from one thing to another has shaped how I work and see the world to this day. A line can be formed from an insect chewing on a leaf or a backhoe bulldozing a new road through a forest. Both micro and macro views are visual marks on the landscape…My job is to bring a voice to the material.”
The other works around the perimeter of the exhibit are just as contemplative. InSeasonal Flyers: Spring, Campbell repeats her systems on a much simpler yet still complex level. Tiny individual downy seeds of dandelion are harvested in an attempt to construct a single building block the size of a brick. Presented is a work so tenuous, so delicate that one more dandelion seed would topple it over. Closing in for a micro view, careening overtop to revel at Campbell’s precarious feat, I was most thankful for the protecting vitrine.
Campbell’s work summons reflection of the changing environment around us. Her methodology establishes a mode of interaction between people and landscape that provokes reciprocity, wonder, and gratitude. Perhaps she wants us to encounter her work as we should approach nature—respectfully discovering exactly how all its parts (ourselves included) belong.

David Nash Communes with Nature, by Robert Sparrow Jones, Michigan Quarterly Review, September, 2014

2014-08-08 16.00.48
I discovered British sculptor, David Nash’s work as perhaps the artist would appreciate—while wading through a meadow of Queen Anne’s lace, salvia, and Rudbeckia. Along the quiet walkways at the Frederik Meijer Gardens, the Sculpture Park offers an impressive collection from well-known artists such as Rodin, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Claes Oldenberg, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Roxy Paine, and many others. Off the walkway, weaving art and nature, a meandering meadow took me to an opening, valley-ed between a screen of deciduous trees. Here I found Nash’s, “Dome”, an intriguing clumping circle of 46 cast iron mounds that neatly brought to mind the spirited growth of fungi after a good rain. In the distance “Scarlatti” by Mark di Suvero teetered hulkingly, but there was something transfixing about Nash’s “Dome” that promised more to come.
David Nash,  “Dome”. In the distance “Scarlatti” by Mark di Suvero   “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, “Dome”. In the distance “Scarlatti” by Mark di Suvero
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”, is an exhibition that embraces the integration of horticulture and sculpture, featuring more than 25 works indoor and outdoor. Any visitor is able to discover and question the works placed with whimsy among the palm trees and ferns of the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory, such as “Red Throne” and “Three Iron Humps”.  They could be found charismatically situated between cacti and succulents of the Arid Garden where I discovered “Apple Ladder”. However, it was inside the white walls of the Meijer gallery—well out of Mother Nature’s reach, where I really experienced David Nash’s work. Inside, the hushed gallery space offered an immediate spiritual clarity like a church. It was here, and not in the direct landscape that I understood Nash’s collaborative spirit with nature.

David Nash, "Cork Dome" “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, “Cork Dome”
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
Nash is an obvious sentient being. His childhood was spent in Wales, working with his father, clearing the fields, and replanting trees on family land. This offered valuable time discovering the properties of wood, which lead to a life-long interest. Nature provides a material for Nash, and a chance form. His language is wood—oak, elm, ash, lime, yew, redwood and mizunara. He speaks it very well. The life-force of the tree and it’s inherent properties; light, moisture, minerals, and gasses, are thoughtfully considered while approaching every sculpture. He shapes and gouges, using deep cuts as linear drawing by way of chainsaw. They are not fastidious. However, the most important methodology in his work is…letting go.
David Nash, Maquettes Display “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, Maquettes Display
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
The limits and controls of his locally sourced wood keep Nash in a careful balance. Along with his authorial hand, his most enigmatic tool is the actual element of time. He prefers to work outside for practicality. He cuts away and shapes his work where the tree had fallen, right where the tree had grown. Being in the elemental forces of nature become part of each piece. But the timber is unseasoned and, therefore, full of moisture. And long after finishing, the wood continues to dry.  During this natural process there is so much tectonic shifting in the rough-hewn surfaces that it commands the aesthetic structure of the work. Without intervention, Nash’s sculptures warp and twist. Instead of an artist controlling the work, he is letting the work go. The cracks and fissures are nature’s finish.
David Nash, "Crack and Warp", 2010 Lime wood “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, “Crack and Warp”, 2010 Lime wood
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
“Crack and Warp”, is the perfect example. This tapered monolith exemplifies Nash’s meditation in form and composition taking cues from minimalism. Nash slices the long, flat sides in rough-cut horizontal lines. Up close the incisions are very expressive. A chainsaw would allow for this. Fast cuts gouge, slice off edges, and dissect the surface, digging and routing without fragility. Their spacing and depth are imperfect and vary slightly. In this case nature’s finish is an organic reaction to Nash’s geometric decisions. The result is a standing column that wavers and dances. Light passes through its wooden gills. The thinner the section, the more the materials warp. The more they crack, the more they brake off. Nash captures the vitality of living, the balance of nature, and the imperfection of human nature. It is exciting and unapologetic in its visual experience.

David Nash, Installation View with “Two Vessels” in foreground, "Cork Dome" in background “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, Installation View with “Two Vessels” in foreground, “Cork Dome” in background
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
Some of Nash’s works closely resemble the natural forms of the trees themselves, like “Cave” and “Red Frame”. Honoring the spirit of the material, Nash leaves the actual textures of the wood and rooting structures for all to see.  Here the artist is showing us time.  Cracks and warp certainly stand for this, but it is also literally in the growth rings of the tree. All details are displayed in a tender light beneath their tough corpulent shapes. These works are not at all sentimental.
David Nash,  “Vessel Series”  “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, “Vessel Series”
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
My favorites recall ethnographic objects. His, “Vessel Series” are mysterious, haunting monuments.  They can be seen here in an upright composition, showcasing Nash’s observational interest in the vertical growth of a tree.  Perhaps they are a meditation on connecting the earth and sky.  The series is also presented in the horizontal composition of “Two Vessels”. This pair of charred oak pieces affects me the most. Their long and low shapes are riveting, sluicing the gallery floor with a dark prowess. Their gesture takes me to the carved cedar canoes from the Salish tribes of the coastal northwest. Their dramatic profiles suggest these ominous shapes in the same way. And like many of Nash’s works, “Two Vessels,” has been charred, transforming the color and texture of wood to an intensely rich, carbon patina. Nash creates this blackening with a blowtorch. The blackening of the surfaces are not just a tone or a color, but a deeper dimension that appears bottomless. Burning the wood creates a surface that is honest, calling to mind the big subjects of life, love and death. The vessels appear to be cutting into an invisible surface, standing for the relationship between memory and the sensation of the passage of time.
David Nash, Installation View with “Two Vessels” in foreground, "Red Frame" in background “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, Installation View with “Two Vessels” in foreground, “Red Frame” in background
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
I think that Nash has a generosity of spirit in sculpting that makes us want to share those profound experiences with nature. He is deeply connected to the environmental movement, with an awareness to look after our natural resources. When I was living in the Pacific Northwest, I was contracted to make a documentary concerning the rebirth of a very important indigenous tradition: the carved cedar canoe, dugout of a single cedar tree. In “Tribal Journeys: the Resurgence of the Canoe Nations” I had the opportunity to interview Suquamish elder Ed Carriere. As he was working a canoe in his outdoor studio he candidly expressed to me something I never forgot.  He said that the cedar canoe is more than just a utilitarian vessel.  It is a deeply respected spiritual object that begins its long life as a tree in the forest and continues in the prayer ceremonies as it is felled and then crafted into a dugout canoe. But the vessel is also a metaphor for the importance of community, the process necessitating hard harmonious work. I understood it as a living, spiritual object.

David Nash, Pyramid, Sphere, Cube, Incised, 2010 Partly charred cypress and charcoal on canvas “David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
David Nash, Pyramid, Sphere, Cube, Incised, 2010
Partly charred cypress and charcoal on canvas
“David Nash: From Kew Gardens to Meijer Gardens”
Spending time with Nash’s work confirms that he is entrusted to nature. The relationship between the hand of nature and the hand of the artist is deep and communal. He earns the respect of the material and we trust his perception of nature, ancestry and sense of place. Nash’s aesthetics are born out of indigenous materials. Their physical presence matters, their materiality matters. Earth, air, fire, water, he follows the elements that demand boundless change and a haunting spirit.