Waiting Rooms and Other Imaginary Places

Within the limits required by the global pandemic, I am hoping to someday regain my ability to focus and move onto some research and creative work. Until that happens, or until I can get out and see something new, I am lucky to have time to look back at some pre-isolation projects. 

In 2019, in the midst of relocating to a new city, I had an opportunity to write for the artist Carol Pylant when an exhibition of her paintings opened at the Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago. The artist published a catalogue to accompany the show, it included essays by me and Buzz Spector. I can’t convey how powerful it was to walk out on the last day of my job of 14 years, drive to Chicago, and attend the opening of an exhibition where I was a catalogue contributor. At the event that night I was repeatedly asked a completely mundane social question, “where do you work?” The answer was surprising and gleeful: Nowhere! (which was also truthful, as I wouldn’t start my new job until the following week). Now, a little over one year later, in a world that has changed in so many unexpected ways, the essay from that catalogue has taken on new meaning. 

Although I can’t share the entire, beautiful publication online–contact the artist or the gallery to get your copy–it is a good time to share Pylant’s work again. The stillness and spaces that she represents are relevant metaphors for the current condition of the planet. We are in a global waiting period of worry, care, and loss. In this pandemic-necessitated pause where we attempt to protect ourselves, care for each other, isolate for wellness, and bury our dead, our world is transforming. The paths forward are unknown. Where will we start again after the world shuts down?

Here is my essay from the 2019 publication.

Waiting Rooms and Other Imaginary Places, in Carol Pylant: Portal Paintings 2009 – 2019

The paintings in Carol Pylant’s Portals series present quiet and formal spaces inhabited only sometimes by dogs or peacocks, statuary, or figures carved in relief. The titular portals are doorways and windows that open onto landscapes, some wooded, others lake views, some frozen, some misted, and yet others on fire. These places are gorgeously, meticulously rendered—once the artist’s process is understood they could also be appropriately described as painstakingly detailed. In this detail they are mesmerizing, but the illusion of reality that is presented is disorienting. Pylant is a tremendously skilled painter. The power of the works lies not only in their careful style, it is also in the construction of unnerving scenes that operate via a disjunction: although the pictured places are not real and the settings are simply not possible, there is a connection to a reality of some sort, as the works are based on actual places. This disconnect between the real and the imaginary is magical.

The works can be understood as stage-like. The settings show signs of age but are within indeterminate, and thus suspended, time. Certainly there is a potential for action in the emptiness of the architectural spaces, but also in the invitation offered by open windows and doorways, paths leading off into woods or views of lakes with far shores. The opportunity for exploration of the space beyond is potent, as the represented landscapes are not clean and ordered like the foreground spaces, but instead are undefined, unmarked, unidentifiable by landmarks or other distinguishing features. Some of the landscapes have clear paths presented, others have no clear entry discernible, but all provide a marked contrast to the symmetry, quiet, and weight of the architectural spaces.

Carol Pylant, The Path

What is represented is not the simplistic dichotomy of outside/inside or nature/culture. These architectural spaces are places that Pylant has seen or visited or lived. The same is true with the landscapes: North Carolina, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Wisconsin. The personal experience is here made real, not simply the act of visiting and remembering these places, but in connecting them, overlapping them, collaging them together to form something new, something different than a memory. As a mash up of former residences and travels, the paintings become a visualization of the act of remembering, of mental life. More than just locations, they are a map of experiences, lived and seen. What breaks the dichotomy and launches the works beyond a simple matchup of disconnected architecture and landscape is the sense of waiting, of impending action or unspoken words that permeate the represented spaces. Not a nostalgia for lost places, but rather the potential for narrative and its related act of sense-making is what is conveyed by the works: what and how we remember, how we make connections, the stories we create as our minds leap between seemingly disparate elements, places, and things; how the very activity of accounting or chronicling makes memory and shapes it into useful bits.

Carol Pylant, Eternal Spring

These are not simply pictures from the artist’s memory, postcards or souvenirs of world travel. Rather, the paintings are sites where memory and place are put to work and utilized for altogether different purposes. Where are these places? In Pylant’s memory they are tied to distinct experiences. But what do they mean, how can they function, for anyone other than the artist? When represented so distinctly, when combined unexpectedly, these disparate locations lose their individual identities and become resting places, temporary holds, places where time is suspended, where stories can be formulated. They are transitional spaces, the boundary between the formal and the unkempt, the ordered and the wild, the confined and the free. They are specific enough for a viewer to imaginatively inhabit, but have just enough disruption to generate unease and thus a desire to get moving.

What is intriguing about the work is why an artist would be interested in representing liminal spaces. In the choice of not telling a specific story, but creating instead spaces where narrative can be formulated, Pylant reveals something about herself. As a teacher she created very real spaces for her students to develop their own storytelling techniques; perhaps these settings were created to make space for her own personal acts of remembering and understanding. In the disconnect between the aging archways, carved figures, checkerboard floors and quiet dogs, the dense woods or open bays and distant hills, Pylant uncovers the opportunity to engage quietly, the option for thoughtfulness, and calm consideration. She represents pause, which is here exposed as an inhabitable place, attractive, and rich with potential.

Carol Pylant, Artigas Spring (detail)

Finding Connections

After a second move in less than two years, I again live in borderlands. Not the international or continental boundaries of my childhood, but in an overlap of industrial and urban space. Situated at a confluence of rail lines, shipping canals, and a state highway, I spend time in pandemic-isolation across from a gas station and a cement terminal, looking out over drawbridges, an EPA site, and in the distance, downtown Milwaukee.  

We moved with short notice just before the city shut down. Unpacking during the early days of the stay-at-home order, and so soon after the previous move, was a slightly nauseating and unexpectedly exhausting task. The new place felt alien. Just another box to live in, without surrounding greenspace, but clean at least, and with windows. 

After a couple of weeks of rearranging we finally got to unpack the art–a revelation! Unwrapping, placing, and finally hanging or situating these objects brought a release and relief that was unexpected. The boxy space became a home, and not just any home, my (our) home. Luckily I am now working from this home. 

While unpacking, trying to correspond via email, obsessively following shared social and news sites, participating in online meetings–both for work and for happy hours–the contact I have been making is distant, digital, and mediated. Like probably most people on the planet, I miss the physical. I look forward to again going for coffee, meeting friends for music or meals, traveling to see distant family, and visiting the grocery store without feeling on the edge of panic. 

The other thing I am desperately missing is seeing art. I am a fan of physical objects. I love looking at the materials, seeing how they are worked, thinking about why the substances behave the way they do, considering what the artists were trying to accomplish, and attempting to understand just when the object moves outside of the artist’s intention and becomes something more. Some people watch movies, others go to shooting ranges. I visit galleries and museums and studios because looking at stuff makes me happy. But what is there to see when the world shuts down?

The choices seem to be peeking into the windows of closed galleries, searching #virtualartexhibition, or catching up on my reading. One example that I haven’t been able to share yet (due to the unexpected relocation) is Stolen Sisters, which was on view in February at the Crossman Gallery at the UW-Whitewater here in Wisconsin. Although I wrote about it in the last issue of the New Art Examiner, the topic of the exhibition remains heartbreakingly relevant. Having another opportunity to bring attention to it and the artists included is an easy decision. Checking out their work is especially important now, as with galleries closed and fairs postponed, artists everywhere need support.

Having only digital access to art is difficult. After days of online meetings, the additional screen time is a hard sell for me. But finding connections, or at least looking for them, during pandemic-mandated distancing, turns out to be an essential activity. I am lucky to have art in my home that I look at frequently. Why? Color and texture, connection, memory, meaning. With the computer turned off the paintbrushes and the sketchbooks may lie dormant, but the things on the walls give the space interest. They enliven the experience and raise my spirits during a strange and difficult time. 

The Importance of Small Moments (revisited)

The New Art Examiner just published my review of the exhibition, Nares: Moves, which is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum until October. With this publication I am now a contributing editor with journal. It’s a small moment maybe, but a really nice one!

My original post on this exhibition includes the text of the review. I am revisiting the material here for the chance to consider some of the work that was omitted from the publication. The exhibition is a complicated mixture of ideas and objects–too much to fit comfortably into 900 words. Following is some of what was left out.

Two rooms in the gallery space are devoted to items from the artist’s studio. Included are homemade brushes, sketchbooks and casting experiments, short videos, and a variety of objects.

Also located here are a number of works: sculptural arrangements of pigmented hydrostone, photographic series, and projected light drawings. In showing the experiments and objects of interest, the combination of works in such diverse materials and the studio items, the exhibition provides a view into the artistic process. The studio is not all completed work; there is much musing and playing and thinking and making of things.

The idea of experimenting and playing that is so evident in the studio section is also clear in the single-stroke paintings and those made with street-marking paint. The contrast between these ways of working could not be more pronounced. Nares has created luscious, monumental works with very different methods.

The thick, lumbering, thermoplastic “paint,” applied with a street-marking machine, has hundreds of tiny glass beads scattered in its surface. The works are stark but richly textured and reminiscent of (Motherwell’s) abstract expressionist strokes. Here though, the paint has been applied via a flaming, hot machine, by an operator swathed in protective gear. The stroke is not a brush in the hand of the artist, but the spewing dragon of a machine that lays down the rough lines.

White on black ground, covered with sparkling light, the works are non-functional crosswalks, street-markings gone wild. Chaotic and dangerous, they are contained and controlled when transferred in their rectilinear forms onto the gallery wall. They are confusing and gorgeous at the same time.

As the main image used in the marketing surrounding the exhibition, the single stroke paintings should take center stage in the exhibition. The fact that they don’t is mainly due to the richness of this artist’s practice. These works are amazingly delicate and graceful. In a demanding process that requires the artist to be suspended over the horizontal canvas, the works are made with elaborate, homemade brushes, and sometimes multiple attempts at accomplishing an acceptable single-stroke. Some include interference pigments that reflect and transmit light, creating color that shifts during the process of viewing. Even here, in what seems to be such simple imagery, the artist’s process and viewer’s experience is complicated.

These approaches to making paintings have some commonality, despite their dramatically different visual conclusions. Whether the artist’s activity involves a machine and protective gear, or the performance of a brushstroke that is tried and wiped away repeatedly, both groups of works have at their foundation the idea of gesture or movement. The artist’s body in deeply engaged by each process, there is an intense physicality required in each making.

One of the many works in the exhibition where movement of the artist’s body is at the core is the Giotto Circle. Can this be considered as one work? Maybe better thought of as a series, there are two iterations represented in the exhibition: Giotto Circle #1 and Giotto Circle (Tooled), both from 1975. Originally Super8 films, they show the artist’s body transformed into a mark-making tool. The artist, of tall and narrow frame, with arms outstretched, in circular movements, makes marks on a wall. A study in anatomy and engineering, the movements are quick and graceful, the marks are simple yet visually powerful.

The two films, made very early in the artist’s career, are supplemented elsewhere in the museum by Giotto Circle #4. Created onsite in a 2019 performance by the artist (start video at 6:50 for the artist’s entrance), this Circle is different than the first works, which is appropriate to the over 40-year distance of its making. It is acrylic and graphite on canvas, and will exist in physical form beyond the video documenting its creation. For now, the work occupies a beautiful spot, at the museum’s lakefront second entrance.

Giotto Circle #4 (2019)
Giotto Circle #4 (2019)

This artist’s long career has included much experimenting and play with different media. The threads of inquiry are consistent through the work and over the years. Movement and gesture, exploring materials and forms, this is intriguing and beautiful work.

Nares: Moves is on view from June 14 to October 6, 2019 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.