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

The New Art Examiner just published my review of the exhibition, Nares: Moves, which is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum until October. The text to the article is below, and the images here are mine. See the online article for the higher-quality images provided by the museum for press-use.

With this article I am now a contributing editor with the New Art Examiner. It’s a small moment maybe, but a really nice one!


20190612_104546.jpgThe new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, featuring the work of Jamie Nares (formerly James), is an intriguing retrospective covering five decades work by an experimental, playful, curious and inventive artist. It also marks the first MAM exhibition curated by the museum’s director, Dr. Marcelle Polednik.

In the accompanying catalogue introduction, Polednik defines the challenge of presenting a retrospective of Nares’ work. “These objects,” she writes, “have little to suggest that they are the works of a single artist, much less that they are connected to a sequential biographical or art historical narrative.” Her solution is to present the works, not in strict chronological order, but rather in thematic sections.

Polednik’s curatorial approach emphasizes three concepts–gesture, time, and movement—which are interwoven throughout nine sections of the exhibition. These nine “chapters” are also explored in an accompanying catalogue and a gallery guide. Additional programming—film screenings, a dance performance and discussions with the artist, collector Julian Schnabel, and musical collaborator Thurston Moore–will expand upon the gallery experience.

Embedding the display within such rich programming and publications is an important choice for this material, as there is not much explanatory text within the gallery. It is helpful, for example, to more fully understand the impact of defining personal experiences, such as the artist’s youthful move to New York City in the 1970s. Details about unusual methods and materials are also informative and lead to a fuller appreciation of the works. The deeper dive not only provides more opportunity to grapple with the complexity of this work, but also provides strong reinforcement of the exhibition’s premise, that the lines of exploration threading through Nares’ long career are consistent across surprisingly varied media.

The exhibition’s organizational scheme is successful in demonstrating visual and conceptual relationships between works in disparate media from different periods of the artist’s life.

The introductory room, which also serves as the exhibit’s conclusion, presents a pair of works: the 2008 video, Riding with Michaux, and an untitled high-speed drawing from 2014. Although not far separated in time, the works intersect in multiple ways. The video’s imagery of sunlight on water has visual similarities to the linear forms of the untitled drawing but, more importantly, they share process. A relationship is made here between the artist filming with a camera on a moving train, and the artist holding a brush to a rotating sheet of paper. Motion, not only in the visual field, but as part of the making, is central to the artist’s practice.

Film and video have a strong presence throughout the galleries. From early works like Giotto Circle #1 or Game, shot in TriBeCa of 1970s New York, to Element #1 (2009) and a series of Portraits (2016), Nares’ long-standing passion for moving images is clearly evident. The subjects may seem at first unrelated—the artist drawing a circle on a wall, small hand movements, a heavy ball swinging over an empty street, the slow eruption of bubbling mixture—but all have important elements in common.

Pendulum (1976), with its groaning sound and almost dizzying, hazardous motion, explores the movement of an object through an eerily empty urban space. In the luminous Street (2011), made with a high-speed camera, scenes of now-occupied city streets have been slowed to a glacial pace. The camera, instead of focusing on moving objects, is here itself in motion, driven along city blocks, capturing unstaged images of people, the details of Manhattan daily life, made graceful and dramatic via slowed
motion. Both works chart time and movement to very different ends. Nares’ innovative use of a high-speed camera is only one example of the artist’s intellectual curiosity.

The monumental paintings presented in the exhibition fully display the artist’s capacity for invention. Nares has created luscious works with various strokes: thick and lumbering, made from tiny glass beads, thermoplastic “paint,” and a street-marking machine; or the single stroke paintings, delicate and graceful, made with elaborate, homemade brushes and, at times, interference pigments. At first glance, they bear no relation to each other—heavy, textured, black and white or gorgeous, delicate, ribbons of color–yet all refract light, suggest motion, and basically disrupt the expected experience of looking.

The show’s most recent works are a series of large-scale images with gold leaf. Originating as rubbings of cut-stone street surfaces in the artist’s old New York neighborhood of Tribeca, the works incorporate both a technological interest—with Evolon, a non-woven, high-tech microfiber paper—and a social acknowledgement unusual for this artist. The stone surfaces are described as having been cut by immigrant labor in the city’s early days. When thermoplastic street markings become abstract paintings, and 19th-century street stone is transformed into shimmering gold, the artist is not only an inventor but also earns the title of alchemist.

It is clear that Nares has been grappling with movement for a long time. A note from a sketchbook captures the artist’s interest in a playful way:

things in motion; motion in things

The phrase provides an opportunity for exchange, a back and forth, a circular form that is mirrored in the intentionally circular path within the gallery. The exhibition ends where it begins: with a video and a drawing, both exploring motion and time, with directness and grace. Nares celebrates small moments in her work, transforming simple gestures into fascinating experiences worthy of our time and consideration.

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

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