Friday, August 1, 2008

“Transformed” and “Self-Sustaining Debacle” at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia

By N. Painter

Rain Forest, 2007
8 toilet paper rolls
Courtesy of the artist and Josée Bienvenu Gallery
Image courtesy of the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia

During a recent Virginia Beach vacation, I made my first ever visit to the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia. I had been aware of the CAC previously, but hadn’t made it over to that area. This time around, I was especially interested in the exhibitions featured on the institution’s website.

“Transformed” showcased the work of several artists with whom I was familiar, but whose work I had never viewed in person, and I was excited to see the work of Yuken Teruya up close. I was also looking forward to seeing work by Tara Donovan, due to her connections with my own alma mater.

Taken from the CAC’s site (in reference to the curation of works in the show):

“These materials are frequently relied upon for utilitarian purposes,” said CAC associate curator Natalie Bray. “The works in ‘Transformed’ investigate the physical potential of mundane and familiar items to become art objects that transcend their former roles in everyday life.”

Forest Cloud, 2007
15 toilet paper rolls
Courtesy of the artist and Josée Bienvenu Gallery
Image courtesy of the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia

Teruya’s work did not disappoint, and I admired the delicacy of the pieces for some time. Another standout of the show was the work of Tim Devoe, who had deconstructed almost an entire wall of the gallery in order to draw attention to the wall as “art object.”

While “Transformed” had rounded up some memorable pieces, my experience of the show was nothing in comparison to artist Liz Miller’s installation, titled “Self-Sustaining Debacle.”

I really wish that I had images of this installation, as there are few on the CAC’s website, and I did not take photos.

Upon entering Miller’s installation, I caught my breath and was immediately immersed in the act of looking at this new environment composed of cut felt shapes. As I looked, few words came to mind, and I concentrated on color relationships and the way my eye moved from part to part of the installation. I noticed smaller groups of shapes which held my attention for a period of time, before my eye was moved onward by large blocks of color, or small, directional lines. I felt that I was witness to a happening, to some sort of alien environment, in which something unknown, yet familiar was leading me along.

In the group of people with whom I viewed the exhibits, the comment was made that “that looks kind of like a spaceship” (about one of the pieces of the installation). This comment snapped me out of my virtually wordless reverie, and I wondered aloud why viewers are compelled to label what they see. Despite a somewhat extended discussion of the question, no real answer was posed, and I continue to wonder…

Why do viewers label? Particularly in viewing non-objective and/or abstract art? Why must an artwork “remind us of” something? Are we so uncomfortable with a nonverbal experience? Is looking without words without value for the average viewer? (In the phrase “looking without words,” I am not implying that a viewer has no intelligent thoughts in relation to an artwork. I am talking about a viewer’s ability or decision to accept an image or object in its ambiguity without having to limit its possibilities by choosing for it a specific identity via assigning a “name.”)

I have my own ideas about these questions. In the meantime, check out Liz Miller’s website, because she makes (in my opinion) amazing art.

Both of these shows are on display at the CAC until September 28th.

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