Review: artNOW DC at the Kohl Gallery by Mary McCoy

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In the second of Washington College’s thought-provoking series of exhibits featuring work by prominent young artists from nearby cities, the Kohl Gallery is presenting artNOW:DC. On view through March 30, the show is a bracing collection of contrasting approaches by five innovative Washington artists. Selected by curators Heather Harvey, Assistant Professor of Art, and Natalie Cheung, a Washington art consultant, teacher and experimental photographer, all of them are rule-breakers bent on making their way beyond the confines of traditional art.

"Slurry 2" by Katherine Mann

“Slurry 2” by Katherine Mann

Katherine Mann does what countless artists have done before her—push the boundaries of painting, but she does it with such vigor and inventiveness that it’s enthralling. She uses simple materials, just acrylic and sumi ink brushed onto paper, but in such energetic abundance that they practically explode off the surface. In “Slurry 2,” Mann literally pushes the boundaries right off the edges of the traditional rectangular sheet of paper by painstakingly trimming along the contours of the painting, no matter how complex. Wriggling fields of painted ribbons are trimmed into actual ribbons of paint on paper; drips of ink wash are snipped so precisely that they seem to be staining the floor. The two-dimensional painted illusion mingles and merges with the three-dimensional space of the gallery. As if to rub it in, Mann allows her patterns to climb up the wall onto the ceiling and flow out across the floor in a glorious blossoming of activity.

If Mann’s complicated, mismatched fields of paint weren’t violently colliding with one another, her imagery—flowers, leaves, ribbons, geodes—would be invitingly decorative and sensuous. But in the labyrinthine chaos of their clashing presences, they seem to be breeding out of control. Cancerous growths and squirming masses of maggots come to mind. They fascinate even as they creep you out, and they urge you to stop and consider the implications of our superabundance of imagery and busyness.

Jonathan Monaghan uses his formidable skills as a 3-D animator to make art instead of entertainment. Like Mann, he’s well aware of the bewildering choices and complications imposed by life in the present day, but his reaction is to ditch the details and boil it down to a concise summary suitable for quick consumption.

"Dauphin 007" by Jonathan Monaghan

“Dauphin 007” by Jonathan Monaghan

A master of shorthand for stories we’ve all heard before, Monaghan used high-end computer animation to create “Dauphin 007.” It’s an engaging short video splicing the tragic tale of the heir-apparent to the French throne together with an array of high-tech medical gizmos. Following the familiar storyline, the prince (in the form of a regal, Aslan-style lion) loses his crown and then his head (in a guillotine resembling a CAT scan machine). It’s all wrapped up in just over three minutes, but it’s overseen by a film crew (so we know it must be important) and features a ballet of surgical couches circling over the palace, cum gothic cathedral, as the prince is born amid a chorus of heavenly voices. Succinct and dreamlike, it offers no particular wisdom, but gives an impishly straight-faced comparison between the old model of the divinely ordained monarchy and our current worship of technology as the solution to all our problems.

Chandi Kelley also weighs in on the foibles of contemporary culture. Splicing photographic images together, she inserts a waterfall into a display window along a city sidewalk and presents a stuffed wolf howling at a light fixture on an office ceiling. First you react, perhaps with amusement, to the clash between nature and the urban setting. Then you’ll probably consider how photographs can no longer be trusted as a truthful source of information.

This is old stuff and fairly shallow. But Kelley’s work has a certain strength in its jarring quality. It’s not pleasant to look at and there’s no

"Remembrance of an Untouched Wilderness" by Chandi Kelley

“Remembrance of an Untouched Wilderness” by Chandi Kelley

chance you’ll be carried off into reveries on nature’s majesty. Her real message is that while we have a penchant to long for nature’s glory yet fear its wildness and power, what we know about the natural world comes primarily from textbooks, documentaries and museum displays. Few of us know nature directly. We’re a culture of secondhand information. Kelly doesn’t pin it down, but the inference is that we just don’t know enough. Against the backdrop of unprecedented storms, sea level rise, and shifting climate patterns, we are only beginning to see the folly of believing that humans can ignore or outwit nature.

By contrast, Michael Dax Iocovone’s work is all about direct experience. In the tradition of English artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, Iocovone’s primary art form is walking. His two installations on view are artifacts representing much more involved artworks that explore how history and culture live in our landscapes. “DC Walking Project” involved walking every square mile of the District of Columbia. Although he documented the process with photographs in each square of the grid, what’s on view here is a diagram of his paths drawn with string on the wall.

"DC Walking Project" by Michael Dax Iacovone

“DC Walking Project” by Michael Dax Iacovone

To cover a lot more landscape, Iocovone got in a car for the “Mason Dixon Project” and drove across this historic division between North and South on each of the 270 public roads that straddle it. Again, a string diagram of his travels is presented, this time accompanied by a video documenting each crossing. In a monotonous and mesmerizing hour-long loop, one road fades into another as he names each one. As an abstraction of the actual terrain, this project acts as a silent witness to the unspoken matter at hand—the great divide on the question of slavery and race. Illustrating how artificial and permeable was the line between North and South and how plentiful the connections are in the present-day, it offers an almost subliminal provocation, a far more powerful way to invite consideration of the schism still haunting us than simply stating the facts.

Kendall Nordin “draws” in space by stringing clear threads from one wall to another. Each thread stitches through countless tiny squares of transparent acetate dotted with glue. Both acetate and glue cast fairy shadows onto the walls as the acetate glints in the gallery’s lights. (Imagine how effective this would be with the shifting light of the sun.) Instead of drawing illusionary space on a flat surface, Nordin invades the “empty” space of the gallery and brings it alive. This has the inspiriting effect of prayer flags or cloutie rags disseminating good wishes as they wave in the breeze.

Nordin’s two installations are easy to overlook in the midst of the visual and auditory liveliness of the other artists’ works. It’s too bad because these airy sweeps are gentle, uplifting works that quiet the mind and invite a feeling of heightened awareness. There’s an ingenuous elegance in Nordin’s simple materials that she uses to remarkable effect. It’s all about light, shadow and space. You can’t help wishing her work could have been set apart from the rest of the show in some peaceful, sunny corner.

In a sense, it’s the same with all of these artists. There’s so much to take in with each one’s work that you need time to absorb it and turn it over in your mind. Besides their shared disregard for boundaries in method or materials, what they all have in common is an urge toward developing a clearer understanding of how to be fully human in the commotion of everyday contemporary life.

Letters to Editor

  1. Carla Massoni says:

    Wow! Thank you Mary for your contribution to the arts – critique and review.

  2. Your essay lures you in to see these mysteries. I think I’ll print it out and bring it with me when I visit the gallery.
    Thank you.

  3. A friend of the artist says:

    Chandi Kelley’s work is actually straight photography, which is part of the intrigue. There is no splicing involved, I am quite certain of it.

    -A friend of the artist

  4. Bobbie Chase says:

    Thank you, Mary, for your beautifully written review of what appears to be an extraordinary exhibit! Your insightful and thoughtful critique should be a part of the show as well!

  5. Just got back from a visit to the Kohl – and Mary’s review proved helpful in my approach to each artist. The informative review opens the mind to the experience of the show and leads to questions I might never have formulated. Sean was on duty and added another element to my enjoyment. Brava! Thank you Washington College for creating yet another venue for art. The Kohl is the cherry on our sundae!

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