Perhaps the most fundamental error of our times is our habit of seeing the world as a collection of unrelated phenomena. On view at Massoni Art through October 8, “frag-men-ta-tion” examines the anxiety so many of us are feeling in these unsettled times of divisive politics and failing ecosystems.
It’s a diverse show, but if there’s anything its eight artists (plus a few gallery artists) hold in common, it’s a profound awareness of the ongoing nature of change. Darlys Ewoldt’s patinated copper sculptures evoke dynamic swirls of energy, Shelley Robzen captures the fleeting gesture of a wave in pure white marble, and Catherine Kernan describes the complex interweavings of watery ripples and reflections. The dazzling array of facets angling across Kenneth Schiano’s abstractions seem caught in the act of constantly adjusting to one another’s presence, while both Grace Mitchell and Alessandra Manzotti conjure ever-shifting swaths of atmospheric light flooding surfaces scarred by weather and time.
There’s a thread of optimism running through this show that lies in the thought that when things fall apart, possibilities open for reassembling the fragments to form a new and better whole. Larry Schroth literally used fragments of his own work, cut up and collaged together into new compositions as the basis of his richly textured archival digital prints. For encaustic artist Karen Hubacher, the process was more painful. After a devastating studio fire, she retrieved beeswax tinged gray with ash and created worlds within worlds with layers of labyrinthine textures inspired by the mold that grew in the wreckage.
But it’s the exquisite beauty of Grace Mitchell’s luminous landscapes that pulls most on the heartstrings and breeds a specific longing for the health of the earth. Each glowing panel is a reflection of earth’s own beauty. Composed of many, many ultra-thin glazes of paint that Mitchell repeatedly scraped, sanded, gouged, and daubed with casually descriptive strokes of paint, they radiate deep saturated color and an equally deep sense of the successive changes wrought by time. Creative and destructive forces are palpable in these paintings, with their visceral references to mist and rain, verdant growth and decomposition, plays of sunlight and darkness, and the injuries and scars that are part and parcel of life on earth.
Landscape painting has long shaped our collective view of the earth and its beauty. Both in the West, particularly in 19th-century Romanticism, and the East—think of ancient Chinese mountainscapes, this genre has defined the beauty and spiritual presence of the earth, water and sky, affirming how the complex interconnections of topography, light and atmosphere give rise to particular feelings from elation to foreboding.
In an era when nearly everything—from food, clothing and fuel to news and entertainment—is provided by multi-national corporations that draw on sources and influences too various to easily comprehend, it’s a great tragedy that we no longer recognize how all the elements of life are related across both the physical and spiritual realms.
Mitchell’s “Mountain Meditation” series underscores this shortcoming of vision. For millennia, mountains have been universally symbolic of ascent into sacred space. Inspired by 11th-century Chinese paintings of the Zhangjiaje mountains in the Hunan region, Mitchell painted a strangely vertical peak again and again in shifting guises of color, light and mist. It’s a place of bewitching beauty, yet it is weathered and scarred. Coming on the heels of her previous series of mountain paintings exploring the devastation left by the coal industry, Mitchell’s images of this peak are lovely but poignant. Whether by the hand of man or by the ravages of time, it is clear that it will ultimately be worn away and disappear.
The inevitability of change is a subject Mitchell has profoundly considered as the titles of two of her other series illustrate. “Solastalgia,” a term coined by the Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, refers to a particular psychological distress suffered by those whose familiar environment has been dramatically changed or even lost, notably observable as more and more people are affected by our changing climate. The other term, “Epoquetude,” defines what Mitchell calls “an antidote” to the disquieting realization that we are destroying our environment and too many of its species, possibly including ourselves, by offering reassurance in the knowledge that the earth will ultimately survive us, as it has survived countless cataclysms in the distant past.
Change is the only certainty in life, and this show reminds us that what holds true within a painting or a sculpture also corresponds to the larger world—every element, large or small, affects all the others. By reordering these elements, even in subtle ways, we ultimately change the whole. Whether for better or for worse is an open question.
Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.