Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Inexorable Truths Lend Perspective and Proportion to Exhibit by Colour Maisch and Khen Saik Lim

Colour Maisch, “Momma II”

Two of Colour Maisch’s favorite materials reveal particular insight into why she makes the kind of art she does, or for that matter, why she makes art at all. One, which refers back to the influence of critical history and art education, is porcelain: a celebrated, durable, even permanent sculptural medium that, properly handled, becomes about as close to being impervious as any material can. Set it on a shelf and it will remain apart as a record of what the artist originally intended, even to the exclusion of signs of use or wear. The other is rubber, virtually the opposite substance in every way to porcelain. Rubber responds in real time to its environment, changing shape and size in response to whatever is asked of it. Sadly, this invaluable characteristic, which makes it perfect for everything from bundling sticks to sealing space ships, is matched with a relatively short life. In even less time than a human lifespan, a rubber object will lose its elasticity and start to crumble back into its component chemicals.

Maisch, of course, swaps their traditional roles. She adulterates her porcelain with all manner of fibers and dyes that lend it their visual identifiers, so producing objects with magical powers of reference back to where she began. One wag commented that hers are the only porcelain objects that might sometimes come with an expiration date. Here at Bountiful Davis Art Center, teamed up with painter Kheng Saik Lim in a outing they have titled — not exactly modestly, but as it turns out, accurately — Inexorable Truth, Maisch for her part contributes manufactured, used, discarded, and found rubber components converted into objects she then treats in art’s traditional, archival fashion. In “Momma II,” a soiled white drive belt is folded and tied with red tubing, suggestive of blood and anatomy, then inserted through itself so that one part emerges as though from within the other. With the addition of dried grass, grown tall and with a profusion of flowers, the title can be seen to be literal, and the work a metaphor for birth. 

However they may feel about spiritual immortality, those who choose self-expression for a career might be presumed to share a certain level of ambition. Art-making, like most creative activities — from starting a family to starting a business — offers, if not material eternity, at least the possibility of long life for ones efforts. I don’t know how Colour Maisch feels about these issues, about spiritual matters, but she does make clear her underlying conviction about what’s on the physical plane: that nothing is permanent. All matter is subject to change, to degradation and decay until from that process something new and different, not necessarily better, but often more elaborate emerges. When Joni Mitchell sang “We are stardust,” she referred to the well-supported fact that in the beginning of the universe, only light elements like hydrogen and helium were present, and so there could only be stars, but after millions of years, some of those stars burned out and exploded, leaving a dust made of heavy elements that could make up planets and, eventually, living things. 

It’s generally accepted that the passage of time imparts a luster or patina to some things, thereby making those individual items compelling and even attractive. Maisch might well counter that since all material elements are constantly cycling through the infinite stages of being, and so our matter has already been everything and will be again, it’s our sense of kinship that underlies our response to a universe that doesn’t extol one form of being to the exclusion of all others. It’s a universe without prejudice or favoritism, at least outside the miraculous experience of being alive right now, which enables us to uniquely countenance and take pleasure in all things and occasions.

And there’s the rub, of course. It is human to desire to preserve the world we were born into, especially the macro-flora and -fauna that make up the biosphere we know and love. Yet none of what is belongs to a stable system or enjoys the loyalty of time. And it isn’t just biology that evolves: think of Lake Bonneville, once an inland sea and now a vanishing lake, or Gondwanaland, the single continent that plate tectonics broke apart to produce the Earth’s five current continents. Of course it’s shocking, unbearable even, when so much is threatened with loss at the same time. Furthermore, the present is unprecedented. The recently discovered fact that Greenland was ice-free 400,000 years ago doesn’t mean its melting today is unimportant: the melting ice contains and is releasing the evidence that there was only half as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then as there is today. But there may be some comfort in the realization that, just as the components in today’s art will not last forever, but will be replaced with new art in time, so the life it celebrates is undergoing the same cycle, just as it always has.

Kheng Saik Lim, “Mort I”

While considering all that, it might be worthwhile to reflect on a few of the sequences and processes that do unfold. Both Maisch and Kheng provide visual samples and analogs, such as Kheng’s painting “Ascending and Descending.” Here the obvious analogs are smoke from a smokestack and water from a pipe, but a more encyclopedic understanding would include the force of gravity on both the water that flows and the atmosphere that squeezes the smoke particles out of its lower space. Not to forget the King’s speech in Hamlet, when he finds himself praying for forgiveness without any contrition: “My words fly up, my thought remain below.” A number of Kheng’s canvases also invoke the word “Mort,” a word and the name of a sound both associated with death. In “Mort I,” some of the tabular forms are lit and others dark, which could suggest receptacles such as graves that are at various times filled or empty. In “Mort II,” on the other hand, their arrangement in a perspective view makes them more like the headstones on tombs.

A measure of the sympathy between these two artists might be “Storied Body,” in which Maisch invokes an adjective meaning “celebrated in legends or stories.” Here a coil of hose — such being the basic model for a living creature that must keep alien dangers at bay by allowing them to pass through its alimentary or respiratory passages without actually entering it — wraps around a document, such as a “legend or story,” the shelf life of which is also already numbered. Or “Paper Thin Skin and Bones Below,” in which each bit of anatomy is seen to constitute a brief event that, even as it comes about, is already passing away. These are the inexorable truths that lend perspective and proportion and urgency to our common condition.

Colour Maisch, “Storied Body”

Inexorable Truth: Colour Maisch & Kheng Saik Lim, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Sep. 9

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