Walking into the small gallery at the Bountiful Davis Art Center where Paper Bandages is installed feels like departing on a road trip so early in the day that it’s still dark out. Silhouettes and familiar shapes can be made out at first, but as inky darkness gradually yields to the light, recognizable things and scenes gradually begin to appear. One may wonder, who is this artist and how did she get to this place?
Some portfolios of Amber Peck’s art from 2017 and ’18, which can be found on her eponymous website, reveal a photographer with an innate sense of how to defamiliarize the commonplace, an awareness of how natural color creates visual depth, and a seemingly limitless ability to recognize the visual potential of everyday domestic life. No conflict emerges between her pleasure in watching her children play while she weighs the artistic possibilities inherent in how it looks. One folder studies the cantilevered, flight-like limbs of young children’s bodies as they dangle hazardously from a jungle gym. Her title, “Careful,” fills in her concern, the emotional content that accompanies the geometry of her images. As aesthetic self-revelation goes, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, razor-edge balance.
So what happens to a contemporary artist who is used to working with sophisticated materials and techniques when an unprecedented pandemic shuts down her studio and deprives her of her resources, including not just suppliers but colleagues and opportunities? Even further, what does she do when school closures mean her entire family must remain at home, robbing her of precious solitude and space she might have devoted to whatever art making she might otherwise have managed? There’s no need to speculate about how this left her feeling; in her statement, she writes, “I felt so angry at the Universe, and so defeated by my circumstances, I had no idea how to move forward.” On the other hand, she adds, “I had some supportive peers and mentors that said I should do something with my hands, to improve my metal and emotional health.”
The description that follows of her efforts to handcraft what she needed in order to make art accounts for some of the most evident features of Paper Bandages. Using obsolete materials she no longer had plans for, but fortunately hadn’t disposed of, she made innovative use of homemade vegetable dies and clothes lines for drying the result. She produced a wealth of new and unusual visual and tactile textures. “Lockdown Meditations (I & II)” use those hand-dyed pages as prepared grounds supporting transfers and inkjet images done on an old printer. New ways of making art often require new ways of showing and sharing, and it might have been better if, in the gallery, instead of stacking these on a pedestal, which signals viewers not to touch, they’d been laid out on a table. Later, enlarging photos of them on a computer screen, I could finally see how relief-like and evocative they really are.
The lists of materials conventionally appended to the title card has rarely made a lot of sense to me, but here it may actually help. One description appended to several works, including the collage, “The way I tried to make sense and function in life,” reads “Hand-dyed paper, Charcoal, Hairspray, Sumi Ink, Encaustic Paint, Encaustic Medium on Wood Panel,” thereby opening the mind to an appreciation of the subtle colors and tempting textures that enrich the visual stimulus into a multi-level sensual experience. By the time viewers reach “The way a sob can bend you in half” they may rightly feel they’ve been educated in how to appreciate an entirely new expressive form. If so, it comes not a moment too soon, as “Apartment 2” and especially “Takeout,” which arguably mark the climax of this show and document how we lived in those days, reinvent a deceptively familiar visual language. They challenge the eye to translate all that has been learned and synthesize new ways of seeing, even as the context in which this takes place is challenging us all.
Amber Peck: Paper Bandages, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Apr. 30. Reception, Friday, April 15, 6 pm.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.