Every time art renews itself, there is the impression that something entirely new is taking place: something coming into being that has never been seen before. More likely, taking in the whole picture, the artists are actually narrowing the field, selecting a small part of what went before, and by isolating a kernel, foregrounding a seed that may grow into the next big thing. This month, the indispensable Finch Lane Gallery exhibits three artists who each offer a cross section of this progress. On first viewing, Morgan Donovan’s photographic portraits appear conventional, while Nancy Vorm offers seemingly endless variations on ornamental design. John Mack focuses on materials and techniques, suggestively slotting him into last century’s breakout of art rooted in crafts. With time, such initial impressions come to seem premature and short sighted.
Morgan Donovan begins by ignoring most of the options expected from photographic portraits or figure studies. Take the assumption, which came early to camera work, that each subject requires, or at least rewards, its own treatment: angle, distance, lens, lighting, and so on. By framing each of her two dozen models identically, with the same absence of background or personal adornment and in the same light, she signals that what she is after has nothing to do with any of these traditional means of self-expression. What she offers in their place looks on first viewing like a stunt: each model close up, stripped down, scrubbed clean, and presented straight from the shower, still dripping wet, as metaphorically, spiritually naked as they appear to be in the flesh. And indeed, this could have turned out to be nothing more than a gimmick, were it not for the alchemy that occurs when artist and subject gaze into each other’s eyes through a camera. To do what Donovan does forces intimacy between her and her models, in itself a process that could come down anywhere from a doctor visit to a police investigation. Whatever comfort the artist’s sensitivity may offer, whatever trust they may develop, merely allows the threat of the camera to emerge like a bone lifting the skin of a flexing body. Anyone who has been to, for just one example, a nude beach knows the difference between simply being naked and being photographed in the nude.
The infinitesimal adjustments of facial muscles that Donovan captures hint at a more essential story than would her subjects’ choice of clothing or pose, had those choices been available. “Karen’s” self-assertion gradually distinguishes itself from “Lillian’s” caution, while “Rachel’s” angst could have more to do with her adolescence, since the much younger “Young Boy” asserts himself as positively as anyone here. The rainbow of races, ages, and types, however, mostly serves to make the familiar point that universal traits are common property, not means to individual discernment.
The real breakthrough here has to do with the very nature of photography. It’s generally understood that most of the time, upon seeing a photographic image, viewers ignore the medium and immediately engage its subject. This is so true that even when the technique is hugely intrusive, most of the audience will respond by doubling down: increasing the mental effort to penetrate it. We have become experts at seeing through the lack of color in early photos, the blur and poor detail in snapshots, and—if more proof were needed—the almost total lack of any visual virtue whatsoever in today’s cell-phone and video images. What Donovan achieves here, then, is to turn her subject into something other than itself: to capture the returning gaze as if it were a mirror, and, by so doing, to put us in her place, making us become as close as possible to being the photographer who confronts these vulnerable persons, and in turn is confronted by them. As we look upon their images, they seem to come alive and to engage us in the delicate negotiations that all successful photography requires. Forget the mumbo-jumbo about photography showing us some unchangeable, personal essence—the very existence of which recent studies have increasingly called into question. The notion that today’s art is doing something new has a lot to do with its unmistakeable didactic quality, and Morgan Donovan’s contribution is to make clear what is always true—even of photographs: perceived truth is always momentary, instantaneous. Eternal verities, if they exist, require another approach.
Another approach is one way of describing Nancy Vorm’s use of rust, paper, and beeswax. The twentieth century saw contemporary breakthroughs in the mixing of media, in the revival of the long-lost medium of encaustic, and in the entry of abstract ornament into the gallery. Vorm has taken what is common to all three and built her own world from those elements. With help from Finch Lane’s discerning curators, she’s filled an entire room with a range of wall-mounted and hanging variations on the encounter between her three materials and three approaches, presenting just the right range and number of examples in sufficient density to overwhelm the notion that the combination has been seen before.
Vorm’s basic building block is a delightful oxymoron: rusted paper. There’s an enigma here, and evidence that the encounter of iron oxide and vegetable leaf is often preceded by some unspecified processing of one or the other. At times it looks like printmaking, with various steel surfaces standing in for zinc or copper plates and rust playing the part of ink. At other times, especially when she uses a translucent paper like unyru, the mottling of orange pigment seems more organic and mysterious. Add to the mix that the result is invariably subjected to further manipulation, ranging from simple crumpling to the most elaborate collaging, layering, and mounting. Paintings, hanging curtains, scrolls, plaques, and wall paneling are among the references her objects suggest, along with the implication that any pre-existing visual or decorative language could be translated, so to speak, into her new means of expressing them.
Hanging in the center of the gallery, six “Rusted Scrolls” demonstrate how an installation could acquit itself against the demands of architecture as well as can any comparable textile. While the fundamental color range is narrow, running from yellow to oranges and browns, a row of “Mandalas“ on one wall display not only the compatibility of rust with other colors, but its ability to hold its own in strong contrast with blue and green. A trio labeled “Restoration“ inserts rust into conventional encaustic paintings—if one can call anything in that reborn medium ‘conventional.’ “Dangling Permutations,” juxtaposed against other treatments throughout the room, show off the cohesion of the materials across different effects. Climaxing the exhibit, “Hoosier 9-patch,” which covers the end wall and invokes tile more than wallpaper, is comprised of 77 panels, slightly less than one square foot apiece, demonstrating the infinite versatility of a single grid—the 3 x 3 squares referred to in the title—colliding with a handful of textures in a context of free accidents and good judgment.
Throughout, the translucency of the paper, the transparency of wax, and the palpable way the sense of touch responds to Vorm’s visible textures bring to life the suggestive resources and evocative power of abstraction at its purest and most welcome: concrete sensual facts that seem almost to assemble themselves into a universe of pleasure to be explored.
Exploration is also a way to summarize John Mack’s efforts ‘to make connections between what is known and what we have yet to discover,’ as he describes the impulse that produces his organically suggestive wood-and-metal objects. It’s worth noting that he begins with real world references—to actual vessels like boats and imaginative ones like space ships—but that he also strives to delay the viewer from becoming acclimated to them. To slow that process and keep them estranged, he first gives his objects, in place of titles, names that mimic the binomial nomenclature, or two-name system of classification, that scientists use to identify species. “Atolla wyvillei navis,” for example, is a vertical steel fin with a swelling in the center that gives it a resemblance to a upright manta ray, equipped with interactive features that allow it to interact with gallery visitors. Here, though, Mack twists one of the emerging clichés of techno-art: the sensors that make it interactive with the audience are located on the opposite face from the light they control. Thus the dance viewers so commonly perform in an effort to make such a work ‘do its thing’ ends up frustrated, since it’s actually being controlled not by the person in front of it, but by whoever happens to walk behind it while looking at something else. The effect is a little more like interacting with an actual living being: something with alien motives and, to us, baffling ways of reacting to its surroundings.
“Pomacanthidae navis,” a hassock-sized steel donut supported on six sinuous copper legs, flashes lights within its glass center like lightning within a cloud, but only in response to vibrations on the floor. Again, the ‘motives’ of the other’s behavior require some effort to decode. Yet a case can be made that the most moving objects here forego such reactive mechanics in favor of a more old-fashioned reticence, which in the past has moved humans to reach out in a more tenuous, cautious, and alert fashion. “Dactylobatus clarkia navis,” made of wood strips that overlap like they might on the hull of a truly fine boat, caresses the senses as if it had been freeze-framed in the act of swimming by, concerned with its own mysterious purposes, its eyeless and earless progress guided by senses we lack. And looking like a fossil left over from a previous great extinction, “Bassozetus Compressus navis” preserves the recognition that living things achieve many contrasting forms. Looking like a giant marlin spike or an even more enlarged seashell, it evokes the formative influences that shape tools and living beings alike.
Scholarly observers seek in vain for the sources of human invention. Where did we get our elaborate languages, when close study only shows them constantly breaking down? Where does art come from: fully formed from the outset, yet capable of so much elaboration? In seeking to simplify and focus her task, Morgan Donovan has rekindled the emotional immediacy missing from so much contemporary art. Choosing a single pigment and support let Nancy Vorm uncover not only the breadth of technique, but the depth of the eye’s appetite. By using his mind to challenge what his hands can do, John Mack finds common elements in disparate narratives. Each of these artists has taken a familiar subject matter and found an elevated presentation suitable to it, in the process transforming both.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.