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July 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Exhibition Review: Bountiful
Reclamation Projects
Carol Berrey and Simon Blundell at the BDAC

All of us — well, most of us — have become conscientious recyclers, making sure to set aside our plastic bottles and aluminum cans so they can be turned into bicycles, or our cardboard and paper products so they can, well, be turned back into paper and cardboard. But Carol Berrey, now showing at the Bountiful/Davis Art Center's (BDAC) Underground Gallery, scavenges for paper so she can return it to its source—trees. Metaphoric trees, that is, artistic representations created with cardboard and other reclaimed paper, as well as found objects and spray paint. With the same materials, Berrey creates abstracted sculptures of a modernist bent whose delicate nature is belied by their seeming durability. She shares the BDAC space with Simon Blundell, whose photographic aesthetic seems miles apart from Berrey’s — in his seamlessly layered digital photographs, Blundell embraces the ubiquitous technological filter of perception that is the camera. But his images are a reclamation project of their own, attempting to explore the fragmented and fleeting nature of memory.

In Berrey’s Tree->Paper->Tree, layers of cardboard are stacked and pieces of paper crumpled and folded to create playful sculptures of trees, like "Pines of Rome Treehouse," in which a small cottage sits atop the canopy of a stone pine. These paper products are perched on actual branches and the paper painted shades of green and yellow to create an effect more deciduous than coniferous. The fibers of the torn paper and cardboard can be seen beneath the paint and give the works a natural, textural look. Berrey's titles are puns on housing communities — which tend to destroy trees, but Berrey's tone here seems more playful than accusatory. "Bird Nest Condo" is one “tree” upon whose spreading branches sit tiny bird nests and eggs. In "Utah Tree House," folds of cardboard leaves nestle a golden beehive, while "Military Pods" forgoes the leaves, and from its limbs hangs plastic soldiers wrapped in twine.

Berrey seems to be of two minds in this exhibit, or the materials have pushed her into two possibilities. In a second series, she bends and folds old paper and maps to create sculptural works—some of them stand alone while others are mounted on colored backgrounds—that are more modernist than folksy. Like the tree works, these can be visual puns, as in "Three and a Half Squiggles," where the artist has painted the scrunched paper in primary colors so they look like paint squeezed from a tube. By contrast, in "Hope Is" and "Balancing Act," the paper has been crunched and folded into long and delicate sculptures that could have come out of a Parisian studio of the early 20th century. They appear to have the durability of gold or bronze, but are — take our word for it — paper-thin and delicate. In "Whirlwind," the papers are arranged in a circle on a blue background, like so many expressionistic brushstrokes, while in "Expand," Berrey has folded and mounted the paper so that it resembles the three-dimensional topographic maps one finds in a national park's visitors’ center. In "Thank Goodness for GPS," a related work, an unpainted map features a red toy car about to make its ascent, as if having arrived at the Rockies after the Great Plains. This piece appears to bridge the two bodies of work, but on which side of that bridge the artist currently stands is hard to tell.

Where Berrey’s works are meant to be rough, delighting in the creases and folds, Simon Blundell’s images are intricately woven, so that while a single large work might be made up of half a dozen or more individual images, they generally blend together seamlessly. The exceptions are three images made of single subjects in which multiple views are laid on top of each other (if David Hockney’s Polaroids come to mind, you’re on the right track). In one work, a still life of peaches is broken up into various, stuttering images, calling to mind a cubist genealogy that begins with Cezanne. In "Every Braking Wave," the sound of ocean waves crashing near the shore is expressed by the rhythm of images placed staccato style across the surface. The first image in the exhibit— it is actually at the top of the stairs, and features a motif ubiquitous in the nearby Handcart Days exhibit — shows an American flag blowing in the wind. But in Blundell’s style — or maybe it’s the influence on this reviewer of the current election cycle and recent violence— the flag appears fractured and torn.

While these three images appear to be Blundell’s take on established genre images—one could imagine these pieces, sans the cubist fragmentation, on a calendar—the rest blend multiple images from various sources to form works that suggest a narrative, or at least its ghostly recollection.

In "Remember for You" a sleeping figure is shown twice in a montage that includes: foothills along the Wasatch Front, a framed photograph, a couch, waves along the shore and the typed phrase: "One thing can remember for you." It has the feel of a dream, the jumbling of images and experiences our brain processes into odd narratives as we sleep.

Narratives are suggested in other works, though not delineated. In "Margot/Margeaux" the two females implied by the title are shown on either side of the image — one decked out as a fashion-magazine vamp, reclining alluringly, the other figure more plain, but laughing with ease. As in “Remember for You,” images of the landscape as well as artwork appear, joined here by a camera-wielding viewer, a grid of numbers, and the obvious sexual symbols of flowers.

Blundell speaks of these pieces as “non-linear personal narratives,” each with a literal and an implied meaning. It will be up to each viewer to negotiate between the two. The model for “Margeaux” also appears in "Split Windows," suggesting linked stories. In “Analog Fiction” a closeup of a beautiful young woman is superimposed on a wider shot showing the same girl standing in front of a white, brick wall. As the work coalesces in our eye, we also see, to the right, a black-and-white negative strip of a young girl sleeping, and to the left, a budget motel. Is this the memory of a love affair, or a more sordid encounter?  The girl’s short skirt and high heels, her stance of bored passivity, suggests the latter.

The figures in these works imply an external gaze, a male one if we invite an authorial (or critical) intrusion. But in “Waves of Regret, Waves of Joy,” the viewer himself comes to the fore, the greater part of the image dominated by an arm that seems extended from outside the frame. Clad in a dark suit sleeve and white cuff, it rests against a subtly-blended montage: waves, a face, a handwritten letter, ink spilled in water that resembles flowing hair, another arm, a small hand. To the right, in a series of stacked images, we see the same arm wipe the steam from a mirror to reveal the vague image of a man.

Novelists have told us this for years, and social scientists are now confirming it—memory is an extremely faulty function: it is unreliable, disjointed, frequently embellished, sometimes outright inventive. We can attempt to reclaim memories, to assemble them and layer them like these images in an attempt to construct coherent narratives, but, ultimately, we are recycling them into something new.

Albedo|Nigredo . . . from page 1

The exhibit title comes from the first two stages of the ancient alchemical process. Alchemists are widely remembered as medieval proto-chemists, who experimented with burning, rotting, soaking, and other transformative material processes in the vain hope of turning base metals into precious ones, most notably lead into gold. For the better part of history, alchemical pursuits were more philosophical in nature, part of the hermetic tradition and used as meditative aids for the purification and ultimate understanding of the self.  The three stages of nigredo, albedo, and rubedo (and several other stages that other ancient texts add) have been used figuratively in works of literature and fine art—with notable examples in Shakespeare’s sonnets, James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. The show’s title references nigredo, or the first stage, which means “darkening” or the confrontation of opposites and inner darkness, and albedo, which is the second alchemical stage, meaning “whitening” and referring to white-hot purification that takes place after the darkness is confronted and resolved. The juxtaposition of opposing shapes, material origins, colors, and chemical properties in Maisch’s and Vlasic’s sculptures gives the audience a second look at the aesthetic potential of discarded industrial materials and their meditative potential.

Each individual sculpture incorporates materials with opposing shapes, color, texture, and material properties (like levels of electrical conductivity), and different sculptures contrast and echo each other. Each piece has at least one material element that is nearly impossible to identify or classify: it could be a piece of Styrofoam so burnt it looks like wood, or a piece of gold so polished it looks like whatever material is next to it. These visual riddles are tantalizing and pull one into a process of discovery. Viewers are tempted to get within nose-length to decode the true nature of the components of the works and debate with fellow gallery-goers about why the enigmatic materials (plastic, wood, metal, or fabric?) look the way they do and what they were in their former lives.

One piece, toward the corner of the first room, is composed of stacks of old wooden objects, which may have been pallets or some kind of railroad ties in another life. Now, they stand in an approximately 5-foot tall rectangular prism, reminiscent of an unusually stable tower of Jenga blocks. The wood is old and weathered, as if it had been discarded and then picked up from a junkyard. However, the angular appearance is broken by a circular cutout near the top of the stack, which has been burned and blackened all the way through. All of the pieces act as foils to each other, their qualities even starker in contrast to the others, but the piece that is the most perfect echo to this wooden one can be found in the opposite corner of the second room.

This piece, which stretches out into the center of the room, is a dense-looking, partially unrolled strip of industrial material. It looks like it is rubber and canvas pressed together, but visitors have to tilt their heads and puzzle over it to come up with this conclusion. The black, grubby fabric is stark against rectangular strips of gold attached to its top. The rubber of the black canvas strip is dull and nonconductive, while the attached pieces of gold whisper a promise of free-flowing electricity. The rectangular length of the rolled-out portion is opposed by the unrolled section that stands in a hulking circle. The blackened, heavy circle of this piece is a visual echo of the weightless, negative space that is delineated by burn marks in the stacked wooden work.

The conscious inclusion of electricity and reflected light, perhaps a nod to the divine spark of the alchemist’s prima materia, can be found in the brilliant sheen of gold on several pieces. The piece that uses gold most prominently, and brings all of the show’s elements together poetically, is an object on four gold legs, with thin sheets of some kind of pressed Styrofoam stacked in a rectangular mass in the middle, held by beams of wood. The Styrofoam sheets flake upward, and from a distance look more like pieces of thick parchment on some kind of printing press. Around the middle of the stack of rectangular sheets is a golden band, and the legs of the piece are so shiny and reflective that the whole thing appears to be floating off the gallery floor. Here, plastic transforms into paper, wood melts into gold, old technology turns to modern, and gold disappears into thin air, achieving a type of physical enlightenment and transcendence.

Paulo Coelho writes in The Alchemist:

The alchemists spent years in their laboratories, observing the fire that purified the metals. They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves.

Contrary to the common misunderstanding, that the alchemists’ principal quest was for riches or the promise of eternal life in the philosopher’s stone, their central preoccupation was more mysterious: a quest for the obliteration of separation and simplistic classification. Albedo | Nigredo pokes holes in the notion that certain types of materials belong in a junkyard, while others must be sanctified in a gallery. The apotheosis of mixed, contradictory, and common objects shows the potential for the resolution of difficulties and worldly grime into something transcendent. This show is a provocative engagement of viewers with the riddles of physical and mental transformations.

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