Two public spaces in Seattle are currently hosting large-scale installations in which sculptures and drawings interact in fascinating ways. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has just visited both projects - by Geoff McFetridge at the Olympic Sculpture Park, and by Leo Saul Berk at Seattle University - and he joins us now with his thoughts.
Both Leo Saul Berk and Geoff McFetridge employ a combination of 2D and 3D imagery in the service of their art, but the similarity ends there. Berk is essentially a sculptor exploring alternate ways to visualize space, while McFetridge thinks flat, even when he’s employing the occasional object. For Berk the sculpted piece is everything, linked to but ultimately independent of ideas and theories, while for McFetridge the only job of the imagery is to illustrate his many, and many-faceted concepts. While both artists use color only sparingly, Berk in the current installation stays strictly monochromatic, whereas McFetridge uses bold primary colors. Finally, and most tellingly, Berk celebrates complexity, the endless possibilities of space to twist, interconnect, and transform, while McFetridge is a reductionist, paring things down to their essentials – the circle, the square, the loop, the single word or phrase.
Leo Berk’s installation occupies the bright, spacious gallery that doubles as the lobby for the theater at Seattle University. Two computer-graphics drawings are posted on the wall, two different views of the computer-carved sculpture which occupies the center of the gallery floor. The sculpture is a huge, skinny, yellow foam squiggle with many limbs and contortions, raised a few feet above the floor on transparent plastic posts, and the drawings are exact three-dimensional transcriptions of this complex form, squiggle-for-squiggle. The entire ensemble, we are told in the gallery-provided text, is “a lighthearted, innocent spin on the power of darkness and the unknown associated with Mayan religious rituals”, a “an aesthetic journey through a mysterious place whose existence has spanned civilizations.” To which I reply: “Say again?”
As it happens, I belong to the Missouri School of Art Criticism, which is to say that my attitude towards any and all such claims for artwork is simply “Show Me”. In the case of Berk’s piece, it turns out that the exact source for his piece is a very detailed three-dimensional map of a cave in Guatemala once used for pre-Columbian Indian ceremonies, now closed to the public. Fortunately for the viewer, the many-branched interior of a cave, with its voids expressed as a solid, is a spectacular piece of visual architecture, but the sculpture itself is about as Mayan as that Coke can in my refrigerator; the “ancient ritual” connection fails the “Show Me” test, but the piece itself does not.
What Berk is really doing is employing state-of-the-art computer technology to bring to life something which could not exist otherwise – it’s a machine enhanced and extended vision of a highly-irrational space. While I enjoyed the streamlined,wiggly foam sculpture, I enjoyed even more the pieced-together 14-foot computer print-out drawings posted alongside. Berk has substituted gell pens for the workaday inks usually employed by computer plotting machines, and the resulting silver-blue fine mesh drawing of the various tentacles, arms, chambers, and passages of his labyrinthine subject is like nothing else you’ve seen, with perspectives and foreshortenings no human artist could depict. The gell ink itself has actual thickness as well as glitter, so it’s as though the entire construction was a sort of an incredibly elaborate, metallic version of a panty-hose, twisting and probing almost maniacally through deepest space. A cave is really the last thing I would have thought of; intestines or space stations for ant colonies would be more like it. Here and there we seem to see a recognizable shape, like the hoof of a horse or human body part, but it’s just happenstance.
Is it art to simply (I’m sure it’s not so simple) run a map through a computer, and hang the output in a gallery? In Berk’s case it is, because he knows how to take data and make it into engaging form; he’s a master of high-tech materials and methods, and he asks interesting questions to which he provides even more interesting answers.
Interesting questions are certainly the stock in trade of the Los Angeles graphic designer Geoff McFetridge, equally at home in the corporate suite (with clients like Nike and Hewlitt-Packard) and the even-more-rarified world of the art museum or gallery. McFetridge uses a highly- evolved visual language based on the simplified figures and iconic shapes of highway signs and company logos, but he’s subversive (and surrealist) at heart, so the combination makes for some interesting collisions.
He’s been given the run of the enormous wall at the Olympic Sculpture Park pavilion previously occupied by Pedro Reyes imaginary city (now in the SAM lobby downtown), as well as the entrance lobby, which he wallpapers with a print of endless crowds of cartoon figures. In the main space, McFetridge has covered the entire wall (and then some) with a series of “posters” (silkscreen on plywood?), ranging in size from window shade to movie screen, all constructed and hung to resemble a huge designer’s studio wall, complete with what appear to be giant pushpins and piece of tape supporting each drawing. Here and there actual objects are mingled in with the posters, including oddly-altered black wooden chairs, and a colossal wooden (?) blue bas-relief melting bicycle surmounted by a sort of triple-level blue trumpet. The mouthpiece of the trumpet is supported on the back of a leaned-over blue wooden figure, far too small for either the instrument or the bike, and holding the instrument up for someone else to blow.
The trumpet/bike suggests the interesting contradiction at the heart of McFetridge’s work . The everyday, deadpan quality of the imagery – one clear source are the balloon-headed figures from school crossing signs, another is the chair and accessory drawings of Ikea – and the bright primary colors, is totally at odds with the underlying message, which is at best cryptic or bizarre, and at worst, positively ominous.
Take the two posters (giant Post-It notes, really) push-pinned to the side of a freestanding box. Each has one giant teardrop shape, the first note cerulean blue, and the second cherry red. In elegant san-serif typography are printed the captions “See a Psychiatrist” below the blue teardrop, and “See A Doctor” under the red. Whoever the designer is whose imaginary studio we are in, he has left helpful reminders for himself as to what to do in case of mental or physical mayhem, using a form we might associate more with “Pickup some milk on the way home” or “Bill all clients monthly”.
Elsewhere are references to sex (a chair frame is echoed in the legs of a girl who lifts her skirts, then disappears), xenophobia (a cheerful crowd is labeled “Us”, a black square alongside is labeled “them”, and our troubled planet (a giant black globe with its head in its hands). There is even a macabre dig at good taste, where an Ikea-style yellow label called “Design” pictures a blue man limping off after exchanging his own leg with the wooden leg of an Ikea-style chair.
McFetridge loves both word and visual puns, and there’s always something beyond the obvious in his various images, but what’s the overall message? He’s better at creating individual episodes than he is with coordinating the overall effect; there’s a random quality to the entire piece both visually and conceptually, as though he was really taking the studio wall (or contents of my head) idea seriously, and perhaps he is; the piece is entitled “In The Mind” after all. But McFetridge takes the stream of consciousness metaphor to the extent of piling his subject matter on (literally – several posters are “pasted” one atop the other), as though we’re not expected to take it all in, or “get” everything; which we certainly don’t. But he’s a fascinating guy, and the piece even includes some very spooky animations that you have to hunt around to find , short clips which I took to be frustrated-artist-in-the-studio metaphors, told in the form of dreams.
McFetridge and Berk both use an impersonal ,workaday language to explore some very unfamiliar things; creating elegant, nature-based constructions in the case of Berk, and making pointed, probing, and very personal comments about nearly everything in the case of McFetridge. I’m totally on board with both experiences.