Tuesday, June 15, 2010

REVIEW: Tess Meyer and Lisa Dietrich at Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington

By Bret T. Chenkin

With the proliferation of self-conscious artists, theoretical discourse, and mega-gallery shows these days, it is always a sense of relief when two young artists present a sincere, ingenuous, but thoughtful and well-executed exhibit. This is just the case with Husk/Hive, a joint showing of two recent Bennington College graduates, Tess Meyer and Lisa Dietrich, at the Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington. The two artists explore different mediums and ideas – Dietrich working mostly with manipulated prints, while Meyer is more of a sculptor – yet their work intersects in how their thematic explorations connect objects to the human experience.

Both artists show much talent, and both are very ingenious with material. Dietrich actually has two projects going: the first is the latest installment of her “True Needs Project”, that incorporates her 361 Facebook friends and their expressed needs for daily living. These needs were defined as those ideas/feelings/objects that one cannot live without. From a list of over 300 words, Dietrich pared it to 50 essential words, which were then printed on beeswax (the size of the printed format is roughly 12x16"). The beeswax exudes a flowery aroma, energizing what is usually a deadened sense, while the tactile quality of bumpy wax stimulates the imagination, creating an art that is malleable, living.

The words chosen are anti-Orwellian; they appropriate a language enervated by advertisers and mass media and attempt to resuscitate their flaccid meanings. And that is the issue: our words as capitalistic property vs. our words as sacred to humanistic expression. Dietrich even quotes Adorno to reinforce her revolutionary bent – and the aim of this piece to escape mindless production. (One even thinks of Shelly’s "Bees of England"). The irony of course is that the nature herself is tyrannical, and the world of bees is structured on oppressive hierarchies. So does one ever transcend oppression?

Dietrich’s other project is a conversation with (and manipulation of) recently-found photographs of her family. They appear to be mostly from the Weimar Era—and the men and women display a content bourgeois bliss, as if all the chaos of post-World War One Germany is occurring in some other nation. These are the men and women that Mann and Hesse feared, if not disparaged: a soldier, a beautiful woman in upper middle class garb, a group of jocular businessmen, a child in a stodgy suit. The silkscreened photographs are enlarged to about two feet and rendered in black and white – almost as if they are drawn from charcoal. But any sense of sentimental reverence is shattered by the inclusion of painted thought bubbles – a la the postmodern pop tradition – depicting an item each figure may by subconsciously fixated on. The soldier has a crimson bubble thinking of a red high-heel shoe; the businessmen (appearing more sinister than satisfied) dream of gold bunnies; and a matronly woman ruminates on a gold cloud. Dietrich acknowledges her intention is to ‘mock’ these photographic images – which is a strong action to take. One wonders why a family member would seek to jeer at her ancestors (an action which would be anathema to many African or Asian traditions). Could it be part of a need to denigrate the Teutonic traditions post-Reich? I think she is caught between deifying and deconstructing: one child is embedded in gold like a Byzantine icon, while a baby, set in the lower left of a composition, stares out at us like a poltergeist, fading on the fuzzy folded felt upon which the image has been mounted.

The second artist in the show, Tess Meyer, recontextualizes quotidian objects in her life and seeks to create “organic, ephemeral landscapes that take on a life of their own.” She uses shredded paper, pins, string, and thread in the pieces at the VAE. The shapes appear organic – shredded paper folded over in flowery shapes and then woven together in serpentine forms become undulating serpents surging in and out of an entire wall of the gallery. This makes a dynamic conversation with the space. Pushpins arranged in a swirling pattern on the floor, become a galaxy or an owl, depending on where you stand. A colony of coiled paper, barely a few inches off the floor, yet spread out for a few feet, becomes wasp’s nest. It is easy to bring natural forms to mind when looking at her arrangements, conjuring the question as to whether or not manufactured goods are ultimately representations of Nature’s blueprint.

Of course, integrating found objects from one’s life is a 20th century fixture in installation art, but Meyer has a sense of rhythm and gesture that takes what would ordinarily be a visual platitude to a more engaging level. Material Study #1, for instance, as it surges in and out of the wall, is a deft piece of handiwork and whimsy. I would say that Meyer might investigate how scale would affect the impact these studies might have on a space. I can imagine the pushpins regenerating themselves all over a floor, as an active presence, rather than the more passive, confined, to-be-gazed-at position they have in the VAE show. Meyer also has several drawings of wax and charcoal, of a sensitive touch, which resemble faint breaths upon the paper.

Overall, a nice poetic showing of two young artists—engendering the hope that we will see more of their process to come. Husk/Hive can be seen in VAE’s Mill Gallery Wednesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment, through June 25.