Week 29 of 48

August 25, 2010

This week I would like to share a bit of writing by a July resident writer who had a great response to the show. Karen McPherson, a professor of French and Francophone Studies and the director of the Graduate Program in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Oregon, specializes in Francophone literature, feminist theory and gender studies, and postcolonial literature. She is the author of Incriminations: Guilty WomenTelling Stories (1994) and Archaeologies of an Uncertain Future: Recent Generations of Canadian Women Writing (2006). Karen is also a poet and has published poems in a number of journals, including Poetry Motel, Fireweed and Descant, and in the 2006 Lane Literary Guild chapbook Dona Nobis Pacem. At the recommendation of visiting artist, Roberto Juarez, I asked her to write a response to the show and this was the wonderful piece she sent me last week. Thank you so much Karen! It is beautiful…

Sweet Senescence, by Melissa Armstrong

Red Mill Gallery, Vermont Studio Center

July 14-26, 2010

Over eleven days this show was for me the living, beating heart of the VSC campus. I would stop in on my way to meals or to my studio in order to spend a few minutes in that still and vibrant space. Time was suspended there but humming with life. It reminded me of what it’s like to pause in the middle of a busy day to sit on a bench in a garden or to step out of the bustle of a foreign city into the dim and quiet interior of a cathedral.  This was the most organic and dynamic art exhibit I have ever witnessed—a feast for all the senses. The room was filled with light and color and heat, a faint sweet scent (real or imagined?), the buzz of insects, the whir of the fan. Five to eight large plexiglass panels (fewer at the beginning and more added over the course of the show) were suspended from the ceiling above metal troughs set to catch the drips from the translucent sugar syrups that coated the panels’ surfaces. Swirls and smears and layers and globs of hardened colored syrup glistened and beaded up as they began to melt in the heat and move with glacial slowness across the surfaces of the panes. These abstract paintings were frames in a slow motion film capturing second by second the material’s response to the changes in the environment–light and dark, heating and cooling, breeze and stillness. Each time I visited, the gallery was familiar and yet entirely different. The panels responded to the movement of sunlight across the floor. By day, the sheets clearly had substance. Watching the solid becoming molten liquid, I felt a pleasure similar to that I have felt watching glassblowing or steel smelting. At night, the gallery was lit up and from the road outside it looked like a rose window suspended in the dark. The entire gallery became a vessel of light.

At certain times of day the gallery was almost heartbreakingly peaceful. What is it about light through glass that moves us? On hot afternoons the shifting and dripping could be more dramatic. Yet these changes were always balanced against the photographic impression of each caught instant, grabbing your eyes’ attention the way a thing of beauty and light always does. Looking into these panels was like looking at a flower or a leaf: it was the containment of light. It was watching stillness and movement together the way you gaze into a flowing river and see both the river in one place and the water moving through.

The autumnal colors of the syrups added a sweet and somber feeling to the show. Golds and rusty reds, greens and browns– these were the colors of antique glass, of jewels, of amber.  And, just as in amber, gnats and moths and flies became stuck and preserved in these panels. These little daily deaths added to the idea of senescence, the way this vibrant world was cycling toward stillness and eventual death as the panes cleared off (though I shared the sentiments of a visitor to the gallery who remarked that she hoped this moth-catching was not part of the original intention of the piece).  The insects added something slightly dark to this exhibit, even an ethical dimension. Against the long, slow life cycle of the panels, an insect’s life and death were swift and dramatic. One day as I watched a moth approaching a sticky panel I had the impulse to try to save her from her fate but even as the thought crossed my consciousness I saw her land and grow instantly still—stuck in the sugar syrup. I found my somewhat dispassionate fascination in watching this disturbing.

On my favorite day in the gallery I discovered a half dozen tiny parallel threads descending unbroken all the way from the bottom of one of the panels into the catching tray. They looked like piano wires.  At that moment, just as the piece held both stasis and movement it also held, for me, both sound and silence. (So it felt absolutely right that a piano accompaniment was added to the time lapse video that capped the performance on the last day of the exhibit).

Melissa’s title for her show —Sweet Senescence –was perfect.  The sweetness was not only that of melted sugar and colored light, but also of the slow transformations that offered at every stage something newly beautiful to accompany the loss of what had passed and vanished. Senescence is such a pretty word for aging. It contains the echo of the word “essence”–so central to what this show is about—the essence of the thing, its substance, its permanence and impermanence. The panels, each at a different stage in its lifespan—the oldest ones almost transparent while the newest were still thick with substance—seemed to be asking: what is the body? what is the spirit?  The time lapse film projected on the last evening of the show was delightful. It was fascinating to watch huge globs falling into the trays, knowing how much slower that movement really had been. But the true time lapse was the eleven days we got to live with this piece. How we shared the rhythm of each panel’s life and how imperceptible and yet enormous the changes were. How sweet and sad and human and wonderful that senescence.

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