Visiting a Bellevue Arts Museum exhibition that features artists working in a variety of media, we "climb above our terror" into moments of insight and startling beauty.
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.”
A more strictly autobiographical narrative propels Jennifer Zwick’s “Restoration Series,” which expresses inexpressible emotions around a loved one’s illness — here, her mother’s cancer. In Zwick's “Repaired Leaf,” half of the split down the center of a yellowed leaf is closed with neat stitches as if by a surgical procedure. In a nearby work, each pore in the fabric of a pair of Band-Aids is threaded with a long hair from the artist’s head, as if the hairs clustered into tresses might be stuck to the scalp of a woman made bald by radiation therapy. Zwick’s disturbing delicacy combines hope, futility, love, and humor in ways that words can't capture.
In short, meaning in “Making Mends” arrives by many avenues. It comes from simple visual allegories and from complex visual music, from bits of language within a work and from an artist's quiet musings posted beside it. There's preaching, too, like Wegner's questioning (above) and Marine veteran Ehren Tool's grim exhortations in the caption he wrote for his wall of handmade porcelain cups — shelves of them, glazed with battlefield images and text.
Tool urges people to “Drink out of the cup with skulls on it. Drink out of the cup with bombs on it. We don’t have money for schools” or for prisons that truly rehabilitate. “But we do have money for million-dollar Tomahawk missiles…. And every single one of us is part of that system.” The artist’s message aside, the rows of cups show how the repetition of a basic shape can confer aesthetic order and wholeness on chaos and fragmentation. Tool confronts us simultaneously with the violence of war and with a psychic defense against it.
One test of aesthetic excellence is to ask whether a work has appeal and integrity in itself, apart from meanings conveyed in visual codes, museum guidebooks, and captions. The art in “Making Mends” generally stands strong without explication. You don’t need to know that Anna Von Mertens’ stitched black canvases depict the great concentric arcs of star rotation patterns on the night Baghdad was bombed or on the day of the Battle of Antietam. Catherine Grisez’s fantastic jeweled brooches, shaped like wounds in human flesh and hung with gem-strung strands as delicate as sprays of silver blood, prompt a thought not in the caption: the gift that suffering can bring the sufferer.
Nor, to appreciate Motoi Yamamoto’s astonishing “Labyrinth” made entirely of table salt, do you need the text explaining that the artist's sister died of brain cancer at 24 and that salt is a symbol of purification in Japanese tradition, especially regarding death. The information is interesting, but without it the misty foothills of a craggy white mountain of salt would still spread into a sinuous geometry of white lines, reaching from the far end of a long alcove to the space at your feet. Yamamoto's maze of salt teases your attention into a wondering meditative trance that may have nothing to do with illness, death, or brotherly affection.
The works of other artists appear in the show (Debra Baxter, Ben Diller and Cynthia Giachetti, Vik Muniz, Joey Gottbrath, Donna Sharrett, Margot Quan Knight, Lynne Saad, Barb Smith), and there’s more to talk about here. But the exhibition itself, in saying the unsayable, says it best.
Enter by turning right as you face the large “Making Mends” title on the wall opposite the elevator, into the high-ceilinged room containing Villinski’s birds and Wegner’s mushroom cloud. You could go left, but a counterclockwise path through the exhibition is more rewarding, starting from the monumental, then undulating onward between the grand and the more intimate. Either way, you'll move through beautifully curated galleries. Some are partly enclosed as if to provide containment for catastrophe, along with a bit of privacy to encourage a visitor's extended contemplation.