Considering the deadly storms, wars, crippling recession, and numberless personal tragedies in the daily news (not to mention the end of the world predicted for this year in the Mayan calendar), Bellevue Arts Museum curator Nora Atkinson thought it might be timely to mount an exhibition with the theme of disaster. But when she looked for contemporary artists exploring catastrophe, “I saw really beautiful work from people finding ways to heal,” she said.
Atkinson and her staff decided they would “focus on the positive” — on mending instead of on rending — to shape a new exhibition.
“Making Mends” features art sprung from its makers’ efforts to bring daylight out of the darkest nights of body or spirit. “The theme that art can heal — people may feel it’s a little bit trite,” said Atkinson. “I hope not.” It’s true that in the age of ceaseless, shameless personal self-exposure, museum-lovers hearing about a display of works produced by strangers dealing with their pain might just want to say, “I hope they feel better now” and visit a different show.
If they did, they’d miss a deeply thoughtful, fulfilling aesthetic experience that transcends mere sincerity about suffering. The artists give compelling, often surprisingly beautiful shapes to chaos, distress, and the road back. If the exhibition is about “healing,” the word is best understood in its root sense of “making whole” what is torn.
This happens quite literally in Combat Paper Project. The project's works on display at BAM were made in workshops across the country founded by artist Drew Matott and former soldier Drew Cameron, in which veterans cut and tear their old uniforms apart.
Then, as if beating Biblical swords into plowshares, they beat them to a pulp and make paper from the fibers. From the new material they create different works of paper art to capture their personal memories of war. The memories take on new forms and meanings, making “something collective and beautiful,” as the BAM caption says, out of war’s horror (see first image in the slide show at right).
One of the project's paintings looks like bandaged wallpaper. Lines of verse slant across the surface: “Just before I was a soldier I was in high school / Just before Iraq I was a child / After Iraq I wanted to be a child / After the rifle / came the pen / then a book / then my soul snuck home.” Works from the Combat Paper Project take time to absorb. They turn our thoughts back upon ourselves and our role in what happens to the young people we send off to do battle in our name.
The exhibition operates on multiple levels — on the body as well as on the mind and imagination. Our gaze is lifted high, then drawn down to the floor. The fine details of a particular work pull us in close, then back us away for an integrated perspective, then draw us close again. You can't just stop for the average of four seconds that (as statisticians who track such things tell us) museum visitors typically allow themselves for viewing an image before drifting to the next one.
Paul Villinski’s “Diaspora” moves us in all these ways and more. The artist found dozens of LP albums washed into Hurricane Katrina's wreckage, and from the vinyl disks created a flock of colorful birds erupting out of a stack of battered album covers. Villinski's “Pilot” is a shapely bird's wing as large as one Icarus might have worn, fashioned from layers of grimy work gloves and lifting a fragile chair in a humorous, off-balance gesture. The playful piece also suggests the serious labor of the many anonymous living hands that make winged contraptions safe enough to carry us across the sky.
A different kind of serious whimsy went into Dietrich Wegner’s “Playhouse,” an atomic explosion surging to the high ceiling, with a rope ladder dangling from a puffy cave in the mushroom cloud's “cap.” The exhibition guide invites us to consider parallels with “friendly fire” and other Orwellian terms we use to disarm our fears about the terrifying machinery we manufacture. In the caption for “Playhouse” Wegner writes, “I hope my work helps people think about our collective fears, our innocence and the decisions we make to be safe. My hope is that we climb above our terror enough to think about the reality and the consequences of our actions.”
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