In art, a simple idea, in the hands of a skillful artist, can open the door of imagery and association to something far more complex. Both Seattle sculptor Claude Zervas and New Yorker Beth Campbell begin with strikingly simple premises for their pieces on view this month at James Harris Gallery, and it leads to novel and engaging results. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin joins us to discuss these two side-by-side exhibitions.
In their adjoining shows at James Harris Gallery, Beth Campbell and Claude Zervas present work where the underlying conceit is immediately clear, and this what-you-see-is-what-you-get transparency is a key part of their strategies, although their respective visual outcomes could not be more different. While Zervas uses computer and electronic tools to construct his wall-mounted light pieces, Campbell presents bare-bones pencil drawings on the wall, accompanied by large, twisted-wire mobiles.
Given the nearly identical titles, "My potential future based on present circumstances (4/27/09)" and "My potential future based on present circumstances (4/20/09)," the two text-based pieces each start with a single incident the viewer might easily relate to: a road trip in one case, a computer malfunction in the other. “My laptop computer was drenched with water and will not turn on” Campbell informs us in her deadpan, handwritten script, and from here one set of branches follows the consequences of “My info is backed up”, while the other branch traces the results of my “My info is not backed up”. By the time we’ve followed the various branches upwards – “The repair shop smells weird” vs. ”The place is clean and friendly”, for example – there are almost 50 possible denouements. Campbell’s potential future, according to this chart, might range from “[The laptop] works fine. I never think about it”, to “I become a first time home buyer”, to being arrested for techno terrorism, becoming the subject of a security video of her computer store temper tantrum that goes viral on YouTube, or most unlikely of all, inspiring a shift in social conscious away from over-dependence on technology. The road trip similarly offers choices that lead respectively to: disaster, riches, or returning home and making a road-trip documentary.
Truth to tell, Campbell’s drawings are much more fun to read that to look at; a chart is chart, clever content or no. There’s no weight to them, as though every outcome was equal, simply another turn of the wheel of fortune (which, incidentally, was a major theme of medieval art; Campbell is reviving a very old idea). What turned me on to her show was what the drawings have recently led to, graceful and abstract wire sculptures based on, but very different from, her tree-form text drawings.
As tall as eight feet high, Campbell’s four hanging steel wire mobiles are superficially like upside-down versions of her branching charts, but transformed into three dimensions with a lyrical sense of calligraphy, weight, and balance – all features which do not appear in the penciled work. Campbell uses very different types and gauges of wire sections in each piece – here all frizzy like teased hair, there dropping in a series of squared-arches like a well-trained Oriental tree – and she’s intent to show the work of her hand, making each branch slightly different, avoiding an easy symmetry. It’s fascinating to see a conceptual artist turn into a formalist with such skill and verve, but Campbell insists that all the work is of a piece – is she right? Not by my way of thinking. The drawings are interesting only because of their content, not their form, while the superficially similar sculptures are all form and no content, and it’s the form that carries the day – they are abstract to a fault. I’m fine with seeing the 2D/3D relationship as one-thing-leads-to-another, but the bottom line is that the artist is finding an outlet for skills heretofore kept mostly under wraps.
There’s nothing similarly surprising about the three pieces (two brand new) by Claude Zervas, but that’s good news in his case, since it’s here about bigger and better. I love the way that the largest of his three moving pictures – powered by flashing LED lights – shows off its wonky electronic underpinnings, so that we don’t have to wonder what makes the nearby two light pieces tick, with their innards hidden inside wooden boxes.
The largest piece, whose impossibly complicated name I take as a bit of high-tech teasing on the part of the artist, is based on an idea truly elegant in its simplicity. Zervas has developed the art of using tiny flashing bulbs, skillfully arranged and programmed, to project onto a wall or plastic screen dancing blobs of light which simulate the pulse, texture, and movement of primitive life forms. Zervas specializes in transgressing the organic/inorganic, high tech/low tech boundary, purposely striving for visual ends that transcend and his electronic means. The large wall mounted piece contains 75 or so tiny circuit boards lined up on several runs of bent wire, and the gyrating lights on the wall are as lively and enigmatic as the tiny, motionless fixtures which create them are static and straightforward.
The boxed-in electronic constructions also feature suggestive, abstract patterns of light in some sort of intelligent motion, with one box bringing to mind a determined and tireless circulatory system (or lava flowing through underground chambers), the other a restless row of three blurry, yellow dice, which take turns shaking mysteriously.
It occurs to me that there is something upbeat and optimistic about Zervas’s employment of the latest gadgetry to mimic the most basic forms of life, as though our technology might be part of what saves us. Come to think of it, Campbell is similarly giving us something to feel good about, celebrating both the capacity of art to predict and thereby anticipate the future, as well as the power of the artist as form-giver, the ultimate sort of creation, by which both she and Zervas bring new images and imaginings to light.