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February 2007
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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Through and Inbetween: David and Mathieu Ruhlman's Aerial
by Cara E. Despain

Aerial is a word that sometimes means airborne, in flight, or from above. This implies a transitive state; the period of time when an object is neither here nor there—suspended between the place or state it has left and the one in which it will arrive. There is a large degree of ambiguity surrounding this matter—the outcome is often unknown, and that exact moment of inertia when the shift occurs is difficult to capture, much less explain. David and Mathieu Ruhlman have made a subtle but persistent attempt to convey the strange moment of exchange between animate and inanimate through their joint multi-media installation Aerial.

As part of the Artist in Residence program at The Pickle Co., the Ruhlman brothers had access to a space rather conducive to their concept: human relics left from another time that carry an enigmatic and vague legacy. Somewhat secluded upstairs, the dark sobering openness of the area is unavoidable; upon entering the viewer is immediately immersed in the both tranquil and unsettling environment. Displays, like mini-alters, are set up sparsely; allowing the indiscernible, stirring sounds from various installed speakers to stretch the length of the space and mingle together. Viewers must walk through dim areas of vacant space to view the different sections. This forces them to complete a somewhat eerie, intriguing transition themselves. The overall effect is an austere, mysterious atmosphere that is reminiscent of a supposed afterlife, or some moment in between. Some noticeable elements consistent throughout the piece seem cryptically symbolic: duality and multiplicity of people and images, replication and mirror images, and the unexpected use of a royal blue—both in lighting and pictures.

Although the piece overall is not really linear, and can be viewed by any route, it does seem to have a center—the cove in the middle of the room that contains a collection of clippings and strange random objects. The two opposing walls are mirror images of each other, with identical thin vaulted tables below matching paintings. Beyond the tables are identical blurred pictures of an aged, faceless couple. The cove is a little uncomfortable and foreboding-- like many areas of the installation the viewer feels almost like they are trespassing…entering into a space of reverence for someone past and unknown, yet almost familiar. Along the top of the back wall is row of repeated photos of an anonymous man that also form a mirror image of each other, the one in the center printed in a cool, ultramarine blue. Below the pictures is a composite of newspaper clippings from the early to mid 1900s that tell a myriad of strange and alluring stories…yellowed with age and creepier for it. Many tell of multiple children born to one mother, another tells of a child being locked in a closet by her parents for four years, and one of a policeman slain for being a witch—all accompanied by rather disconcerting pics. With these peculiar tales of murder, deformity, and death the culmination of the clippings forms a collective history—one that becomes almost more occult with the passage of time. Today we are left with only these carbon-copies, imprints, of the experiences recorded on old tattered paper with no verbal explanation to verify them. A separation is created in this way, and within it a strange fascination.

Throughout the installation are odd, precious little weathered objects placed with specificity to create shrine-like scenes. Inherent in these objects is a story or meaning that has been obscured; time and ownership change and increase the mysticism of these things left over. This is what is compelling about antiquated items. Spoons, dated address books, old lumber and photos all span time and depersonalize the concept of possession. How do they resonate with us now? What happens to possessions years after a person has lived? They are rendered meaningless, yet, in their ambiguity are fraught with meaning…the people who knew their uses and histories are not available in this context to pass the myth along. If there is an intrinsic communicative quality to them, it must exist in some other form—which may be beyond the scope of human perception. The tables, chairs, and grave-like structures, made to feel like antiques, are infused with sound; hidden speakers project ambient, quasi-familiar noises and attempt to amplify some after-echoes that these inanimate pictures and objects are proposed to radiate. The low-level, mostly unrecognizable sounds emphasize the absence of speech, and the resulting necessity to utilize alternative methods of comprehension.

The audio seems especially poignant reverberating off the vast walls and spaces surrounding the four grave-like structures along the west wall. It is also a little disquieting. This is another area of the exhibit that uses replication and mirror images in a curious way. On each wooden tomb there is the same dated photo of a man’s face, which cover speakers emanating sound. The old lumber forms a kind of trough containing dirt and sprouting blades of grass, brilliant green with ambition to grow in this space so preoccupied with death. Amidst this decay is rebirth. The set is again a symmetrical mirror of itself, with four tinted blue photos in the center. Is this where the two opposing realms butt up against one another—living and not? One reflects the other; everything is the same, just flipped. The repetition seems to remind that death is not unique, but rather something impending and universal. The residue of life—the monuments we construct, the ricocheted stories and deserted objects—becomes less individual and more part of an ongoing and shared fetish.

There is a certain tension that arises from the ambiguity of environment the installation imposes. The upside down tree suspended from the ceiling perpetuates this effect. It’s heavy and delicate, symbolic in an elusive way. Lit dramatically from above, the outer branches are connected by cords to tables with bird’s nests and speakers built in. They send vague static, seeming to function like neurotransmitters firing synapses, to the outer three boxes. The diffuse light, surrounded by darkness and background auditory elements, in conjunction with the weirdness of the set-up, presents an ethereal atmosphere, like a corridor between sentient living things and silent living things. Adjacent to the tree is a video projection of a faceless crowd moving in unison, droning and shuffling in a human sea. The placement makes them appear to be entering into this other uncertain realm, a place where it seems all humans will inevitably go.

In the back corner of the exhibit is a perplexing blue-lit room. Encased entirely by walls containing small speakers and little square windows, the room has very limited access; the viewer has a constrained vantage, and no real tools of reference to understand the contents of the space. It is a strange arrangement of old wood and bricks that feels more haphazardly placed than anything else in the installation. It appears mysterious and rather incomprehensible to the spectator, especially given their inability to approach or examine it. They can only look through the glass. This area communicates the theme: the living have a very limited understanding of death and its aftermath. Ephemeral, cryptic hints lay about, leaving us to guess at what no one really know. This is consistent throughout the show—the artists willingly express that they too have no definitive understanding of the phenomena they present with their work. Their honesty is refreshing, and cements their thesis by leaving the proposed questions up in the air—aerial.
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The Pickle Company will hold a closing reception for Aerial Friday February 9th, at 8 pm with performances by Ether Orchestra and Sons of the Atom. Click for more.
Peterson & Wilson . . . from page 1

There is considerable irony involved in locating this work against the backdrop of mainstream art, to appreciate which requires a short excursion into modern art history. We know how a hundred and fifty years ago painting had pretty well fulfilled its mandate: to find the means of depicting the world we experience in all its richness and complexity, using only visual cues arranged on a two-dimensional surface. The search by artists for additional ways to encode the world then led to at least three alternative systems of depiction that were to revolutionize all the arts, not just painting. One was photography, another the popular press with its capacity for bold graphic display, and the third, probably most important, was globalization and the recognition that beyond Europe lay countless other ways to see and represent the seen. Impressionism drew on the camera, posters, and Japanese woodblock prints. Cubism added Iberian and African sculpture to the mix. Eventually the avant-garde inverted what had been the goal of art since the Renaissance, instead granting the system of representation autonomy and dismissing subject matter as irrelevant to making of art. If you've stood before modern art, then, and wondered why you couldn't tell what it was about, it may be because since the middle of the last century it was likely to be about nothing but itself.

So under such a regime what is the status of art like Peterson's and Wilson's? Peterson has worked extensively as an illustrator, producing her images in close collaboration with writers, so that neither pictures nor text can be said to merely serve the other's needs. Her approach to oil painting brings along the visual qualities she learned as an illustrator: flat areas of color divided along edges that, in addition to separating colors, carry the expressive power of the hand that drew them. She also displays a willingness to use visible marks to present non-visual information: as decorative elements and to convey more than just visual information. Wilson uses woodblocks, like those used in the Japanese prints that mesmerized everyone from Manet to van Gogh, and their effects are still as compelling. The texture of the wooden matrix replaces the look of things with the feel of nature. Both artists use techniques that argue visually that not all the data taken in by the eye is of equal importance: that awareness and desire are part of how we perceive.

Many so-called avant-garde artists graft these traditional forms of representation onto their work, but they attempt to filter out the substance in favor of the form. Not so Peterson and Wilson. When artists in Paris and New York flattened their representational spaces it was in pursuit of novelty. The artists they copied, "primitives" in their estimation, depicted the world as they did because, for them, the pattern was more important than space. They were more interested in what holds the world together than in what separates the parts. And so are Kathleen Peterson and Blanche Wilson.

Take for example Wilson's "Wheeler's Canyon," a landscape woodcut in black and white. (page 1) In the lower half, which we read as the foreground, the tops of trees set up a pattern of soft, rounded forms interrupted by patches where the ground is visible. Above this a dark, thrusting wedge of trees seen from the side indicate one limit of the canyon. The opposite wall, an inverted, matching triangle of eroded, sun-struck rock, has the vertical linear texture of the forest but a pattern of light-and-dark like the trees in the foreground. It's like interlacing the fingers of our two hands so they become part of a new, singular thing. The entire composition alternates between a horizontal arrangement, from near to far, and a vertical arrangement from bottom to top. Five birds, negative forms against the dark forest, add to the force of the latter by reminding us that our own point of view is also elevated; we are looking down into the canyon from above the trees.

Such elevated points of view abound in Wilson's prints, as they did in Impressionist paintings and Chinese and Japanese landscapes. So do textures: in "Beautiful Moon" |0| the night sky is like watered silk. In "Tethered Boats," |1| water adopts the vocabulary of wood grain. In "Taylor Ave," |2| the late-afternoon sun that streaks the sky with red also streaks the snow-covered ground with blue, and we realize it's the same process. Time is an essential ingredient in all these places, too. In "Taylor Ave" we see the distant city of Ogden at the moment when electric lights precisely balance the waning sun. In "Willard Bay," the light dapples off the lake just beyond plowed fields and orchards marked by shadows set into play by the same raking sun.|3| Harmony can arise. In fact, our senses tell us it will, it must.

Peterson, too, has an interest in texture and harmony, but the potential for rupture plays a larger, if largely implicit, role in her paintings. In "Three Sisters" |4|and "Quilters" |5|, to take extreme examples, textiles that are woven together symbolize the power of words to enclose and divide us. So, too, the dozen women in "The Dance" are interlaced in ways that could have spelled a darker reading: confinement, the medieval Dance of Death, or the mass graves of yesterday's newspapers. Always, though, the argument for kinship is made through the figure: through pose and expression. Whether it's entwined arms ("Small Talk," "Jackpot"), arms draped over each other's shoulders ("Divas of Deity," "Border Crossing," "Fruit Vendors," and "Sisters"), children draped over their parents ("Story," "Sleeper," "The Red Ball," and "Iraquis"), or the tilt of a head and the embrace of eyes, the connections that exist between the subjects are restated formally by harmonies of color and form. In "Malaysian Reign," |6| shared umbrellas suggest a more accurate way to look at the headscarves beneath them. In "Two Red Mugs," the women’s bodies enclose their excuse for lingering together like brackets while they lean together like the unequal sides of a single heart.|7|

The test of any work of art ought not to be whether some theory supports it. Even in the twenty-first century, the proof of the pudding still lies in the eating. Art lovers with hungry eyes — and in this historical moment, which no less an authority than the august critic Robert Hughes has termed an artistic "slump," the eyes of art lovers are seldom enough sated — those who enjoy work that fires on all its cylinders, that combines pleasures for the mind with those for the rest of the sensory apparatus, should avail themselves of the opportunities afforded by the chance to see work by not just one artist who truly understands what she is about, but two such artists; and two who, like form and content, make each other look even better by appearing together.
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Kathleen Peterson & Blanche Wilson continues at the Phillips Gallery through February 9th.