Historical Journal

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Archives,Reviews

A Closer Look

January 1, 1999
Judith Stein

A writer and curator, studied at Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her curatorial projects include Red Grooms, A Retrospective, for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The Figurative Fifties, New York School Figurative Expressionism, co-curated with Paul Schimmel. Her exhibition, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, and earned a best catalogue award from AICA/USA. Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in Art in America, Art News, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Among her honors is a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a Pew Fellowship for literary non-fiction; and a Lannan Foundation writing residency in Marfa, Texas.

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“Primex,” a large, ersatz hanging planter, takes its name from the large garden supply store in Glenside."

Beaver College Art Gallery
January 12 – February 14, 1999
“Map me no maps, sir, my head is a map, a map of the whole world.” -Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
We humans have long charted, plotted, and diagrammed the world around us. The oldest existing map – a small clay tablet from Sumeria portraying an estate – was made late in the third millennium B.C. This universal process of mapmaking, of measuring and systematizing space, transforms one set of visual information into another. I had been occupied for some time by the artful manifestations of mapping in contemporary art when Beaver College Art Gallery Director Richard Torchia asked me to curate A Closer Look 3. After sifting through nearly one-hundred dossiers, I created a short list of twelve artists. I then determined that the nucleus of the group would be Perry Steindel, an artist who has been making imaginary maps for the last thirty years. His art led me to other artists who puzzle over the conceptual terrain of thought and language. The group of seven I eventually selected employ both serious and comic strategies to address the ways people, animals, and plants mark and stake the landscape.
“Maps are the vocabulary of passion that I speak,” PERRY STEINDEL wrote in 1992. Steindel supports himself as a night staffer in a bank. On occasion he is obliged to wait for a long printout to be cranked out by a large printer. In those moments he may grab a piece of scrap computer paper he’s stowed away for the purpose and start a drawing of an imaginary coastline. To Steindel, creating these delicate, lyrical markings is a privately spiritual endeavor, as he takes the blank page and transforms it into a small, graceful drawing. His usual tool is a ballpoint pen refill, which is quite light in the hand; “like taking hold of a feather, or flying in a dream,” he says. Later he often salvages a part of the spontaneous image and works on it until he’s satisfied that it is complete. In general, maps serve as intermediaries between their maker, their users, and the environment. Steindel’s cartographic notations invite us to follow him into the territory of the mind’s eye.
The intimate, rebuslike paintings of SHARON HORVATH explore the interpretive richness of diagrammatic markmaking. Horvath is as much inspired by the layered density of primitive archeological sites as she is by modern metro maps. In “Heaven and Sea,” which appears to reference an electronic circuit as well as a body of water, Horvath frames her central form with a zig-zagged edging made by pinking shears. While “Chronicle Paternal” evokes a target or radar screen, “Emerald Necklace” suggests a forest from a bird’s-eye view. Regarding the role of maps in her art, Horvath recently stated: “‘My paintings are maplike suggestions of the physical and psychological energies that we call the self, and at the same time, they are attempts at portraying a world always shifting borders between inner and outer by which we recognize our world and our selves.” One work on view, a humorous etching and watercolor entitled “Walking Map,” contains images resembling a tall shoe and peg leg. It evokes the “Walking Purchase,” an ignoble moment in Pennsylvania history when, in 1737, the sons of William Penn used a forged treaty to acquire territory from the Delaware Indians. They chose an exceptionally fit man to establish land boundaries loosely described as extending “as far as a man can go in a day and a half.”
In the English language, we talk about “reading” a map as well as reading text. How is reading different from looking? SUE PATTERSON charts the territory of language through her linen cutwork lexicon mazes. Reflecting her current focus on the written word, she creates Scrabble boardlike formations of her own poems in the two works on view. In several instances, these texts refer back to their own form and to our awareness of the process of reading: “persons awaiting discovery may be lost forever…. take the time for smaller problems.” Snaking around each rectilinear configuration of the machine-stitched text is a loose, gestural track of stitches, worked by hand in thread that glows in the dark.These patterns take the form of Porteus mazes, named after the early twentieth-century Australian educator who developed them as an educational testing tool. Each pattern documents a given individual’s series of “choice points” at important times of transition. Patterson awakens us to the notion of the maze as a map, recalling the way Ariadne helped Theseus escape the labyrinth by laying down a thread to serve as his guide.
In three distinct but related works, YANE CALOVSKI employs aerial views and elevations to symbolically deconstruct his family’s house, designed and built by his parents. Starting with accurate architectural information, he maps the home and property, exploring different aspects of looking by showing us the house plan in different views and formats, including a masonite relief and two drawings — one on adjoined sheets of rice paper and the other on both sides of a bar of Plexiglas. Precisely rendered, they not only suggest the propositional attitude of blueprints and models, but also register the structure as built, observed, inhabited, and adjusted. To the artist, these works “represent the ephemeral nature of remembering.” The specific dwelling, both documented and recollected, becomes “the active monument of our lives.” The text that inspired these works is a poem entitled “The house and its imperfections” by his father, the Macedonian poet and essayist Todor Calovski. Regarding his own sculpture, Calovski has said: “There is nothing perfect or absolute about any of these works; although they derive from a specific source, they have become self-referential by speaking of their own imperfections and transformations.” Airplanes and their shadows appear in two of the pieces, as does a small car that appears to exit the large rice paper drawing. Mimicking the narrative of travel, these elements animate the works and confirm the actuality of the house in relation to the world.
BILL SCANGA is represented by three works that question context, including a miniature, well-appointed living room inhabited by a mounted frog. Are we to understand that the creature is in his own space, or is he an intruder? And what do we make of the other frog in the tableau? Scanga’s droll sculpture leaves us with as many questions as answers.The croaking sounds emerging from the loudspeakers are a link to the creature’s natural habitat, where sound is a way of marking territory. High in the rafters of the gallery, beneath the sill of a small elevated window, Scanga has carefully sited another mounted specimen – a bird rocking suggestively back and forth on his perch. These seemingly auto-erotic motions are not accompanied by birdsong but by a vintage recording of tunes whistled by the legendary virtuoso Fred Lowery. Scanga is not afraid of making his audience laugh with his surreal juxtapositions of animal life and human appurtenances. In another work, “Ant,” his amusing seven-minute videotape inspired by other “‘pioneering” animals as they intersect with the manmade, Scanga documents the successful space flight of a live insect traveling in a toy rocket.
Like Scanga, outdoor sculptor SUSAN CROWDER evokes grave questions about the opposing territorial imperatives of different species. Indigenous information often dictates the form of Crowder’s undertakings. Her favored materials are black rubber hose, coated wire, and plastic netting used to protect plants from grazing animals. When she employs conventional materials for works on paper, Crowder enjoys delineating a dense, central image, the edges of which she then fans or “smudges” into progressively lighter tonal passages. She was delighted to discover that when cut and bundled, the plastic netting allows her to replicate in her sculpture the visual effect of her drawings. “Ground Cover” is a dark horticultural surrogate animated with the sinister will of hearty, invasive aliens. It expresses the random growth of plant life as it literally blankets the floor. Glenside, the column-based sculpture situated outside the gallery, is surmounted by a bird’s nest. Crowder translates its classic forms back into the raw materials of trees. As such, it becomes a canny time capsule, using the language of architecture as interpreted in the late-eighteenth century, when people were interested in the origins of the classical orders and took pleasure in the rustication of forms. “Primex,” a large, ersatz hanging planter, takes its name from the large garden supply store in Glenside.
The quasi-abstract canvases of GERALD NICHOLS reveal his interest in mapmaking as a primary – but not the sole – tool for capturing a “sense of place.” In Nichols’ semi-autobiographical work, “The Nighthawks,” for example, we can discern the meandering course of the Susquehanna River as it appears and disappears from view. Nichols’ use of geometry relates to what he refers to as “the conceit of controlling the shape of the world” as seen by his visual references to schema – for instance the configuration of the Big Dipper or a stylized leaf designed by a nineteenth-century American quilter. “Institute for the Investigation of Winter,” the tongue-in-cheek title of one of Nichols’ three paintings on view, speaks to this unrealistic desire to quantify nature. Nichols highlights a vintage Airstream trailer making its way across the compositional circuitry. He succeeds masterfully here in conveying the buttery potential of paint while humorously referencing the archetypal green and red of the holiday season.
In his ancient volume Lives, the Greek biographer Plutarch described the work of geographers who “crowd into the edges of their maps part of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts and unapproachable bogs.” Like Plutarchian geographers, the seven artists exhibiting in A Closer Look 3 pay homage both to what can and cannot be seen. For most of us, it is a balance that is continually shifting.
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