Carolyn Healy + John Phillip
A century-old former stables in Belltown with its original wooden truss ceiling and plank floor, has become a major local showcase for installation art. The gallery, called Suyama Space, is the project of a local architectural firm, and shares part of their office. This summer’s exhibition, a meditation on light and structure by Philadelphia artists Carolyn Healy and John Phillips, has just opened after five weeks of installation. Joining us to talk about this piece is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
From what I can gather from the artist’s website, the Suyama installation is quite different in nature from many of their earlier pieces: dark, complicated-looking agglomerations of metallic found objects bombarded by flashy, colored video projections, installed in indoor settings where the only light was that the artists provided.
Suyama Space is something else entirely. Huge skylights in the barn-like roof flood the courtyard-sized interior with daylight. On clear days moving panels of shaped sunlight flow across walls and floors, a projection of windows, joists, and trusses. The architect George Suyama was so fascinated with the building’s natural light that he installed an oculus on a west-facing wall so that the lit trace of the sun’s course through the seasons could be tracked and noted; it falls on a particular central wall, for example, at the summer solstice.
Shadows, structure, and space all find their echo in the Healy/Phillips installation MetaphorM, a visually lightweight, complex work, with a number of discrete and interacting elements. That it might be a bit too complex is an element to be considered a bit further on, but the artists are nothing if not ambitious. Each plays a particular role in their collaboration: Healy creates the sculptures, while Phillips, working separately, creates a complementary program of sound and video projections.
Healy’s Suyama sculpture consists of pieces that float rather than rest in the space, suspended from the ceiling and touching neither floor nor walls. Her work is a sort of tracery, a series of linear structures suggestive of architectural drawings, models, and diagrams. The largest elements are huge open frames made up of skinny steel rods, which act as both room dividers and commentaries on the space. One set of these frames hangs alongside the room’s actual walls, creating a sort of virtual room within the room. The frames enclosed diagonal lines and angular shapes that are meant to echo those of the trusses above – elevation views, as it were, though purposely not literal in detail. In the middle of the room hang several giant box frames, like model houses or towers with pitched roofs partly unfolded and facing downwards, just above the floor. These hanging frames made me think of a playground full of steel climbing structures; they spotlight the graceful way that built structure and gravitational force interact.
The other major sculptural element of the installation also refers to gravity and equilibrium. Looping across the ceiling is a network of cables, pulleys, and ropes, upon which various discard industrial objects are suspended like bells or counterweights. These metal disks, hooks, balls, and rings hang at regular intervals, their occasional bright paint providing the only color note in an otherwise monochromatic piece. Though this mechanical system is fixed in place, its potential activity is suggested by the sound loop that occasionally murmurs in the background with the noise of metal objects being struck, the low-pitched clanging of a factory at work.
The final piece of the installation are three video projections. Two of the projectors cast shadows of various hanging elements on large wall-mounted screens. As one watches, other shadows mingle with the real ones, sometimes like a piece of the shadow breaking off from the rest and drifting off on its own, and other times an independent event with moving shapes with visual affinities to those already there. The third projection, smaller and circular, is having its own conversation, featuring a series of circle-based, fractured geometries slowly morphing from one configuration to another.
There’s a very far-reaching impetus behind this installation, the visual art equivalent of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk – the idea of opera as a “total, integrated, or complete artwork” combining multiple art forms. Here, instead of linking music, theatre, set, and costume, the artists strive for the integration of drawing (the large 2D metal frames), sculpture (the large box frames and suspensions), video, and sound. Here the “plot” which animates the work isn’t driven by romance or mythology, but the dynamics and atmospherics of a particular space. Instead of the “The Flying Dutchman”, we have the “Triumph of the Truss”.
Does MetaphorM work as an example of fully-integrated art? Does it stimulate an appreciation of Suyama Space deeper and richer than the richness of the space unadorned? Does it inspire energetic meditations on the interactions of structure and light, tension and balance, enclosure and transparency? Do the various components reinforce each other, or merely coexist?
Not really, no, yes, and sometimes.
MetaphorM is a collection of frames, objects, and projections. We perceive it as multiple separate elements rather than a coherent whole. It doesn’t have enough visual weight to provide a total experience nearly as strong as that of simply being in the space. It’s full of interesting ideas, particularly about light, and nature of line: lines of force, lines that can enclose volume, lines that lead the eye through space, but there are too many ideas for one piece to comfortably handle – it’s a bit exhausting.
The connection between the hanging frames and their shadows – real, projected, and computer generated – is the most successful interaction between the various components. There’s something genuinely mysterious about shadows taking on a life of their own, moving and changing independently of the objects casting them – the Peter Pan Effect. And speaking of Peter Pan, the artist’s sense of playfulness and invention is the best thing going for the exhibition as a whole, a sort of jungle gym for the mind.