The Heart of the Visible 

Something New at the Fine Arts Center

The three women artists featured in this exhibition are after something beyond the beauty of the visible -- although each, in her own way, offers us ample beauty. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Visible and the Invisible: "It is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible, or as though there were between it and us an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand." As we examine the works of photographer Carol Dass, mixed-media artist Laurel Swab and painter Dawn Wilde, each artist's medium brings us into the heart of her particular visibility, formed through a unique vision, which in turn transports us from our own strand to the sea of the artist. "And yet," Merleau-Ponty continues, "it is not possible that we blend into it, for then the vision would vanish at the moment of formation."

But isn't "blending into it" the whole purpose of the art experience? What I think the philosopher is saying, is that, as viewers, we are always reminded of our distance from the work at the same instant as we connect with it. "The Fireplace," one of the twenty silver gelatin prints Dass exhibits, illustrates the point. This is an amazing image of a female torso, seen from behind, sitting inside a fireplace, complete with a fantastic bouquet of flowers on the mantle! As a viewer, I identify with the metaphor of the female body as fire log, wedged with graceful discomfort into the confining frame of the domestic hearth. Yet this form is not me; I have not had the courage or artistic insight to sit still within the fire(place). I remain both inside and outside of Dass's image.

Dass's photographs of anonymous women staring out from behind exotic masks; of fish swimming in a pond or gliding over a woman's breasts; of rough, aged hands cradling soft peaches; of pale nudes in shadowy forests -- to mention the subjects of just a few of the images exhibited -- make both the surface and the depth available to us. Dass's photographs convey to me that which is at once distant and familiar. Perhaps it's the historical element of her images: We can see the important influence of the turn-of-the-20th-century pictorialist photographers. But the historic atmosphere Dass conveys is also created through her use of warm-toned paper and small scale. As an art historian, my task is to convey to students the texture of history, while helping them recognize our contemporary biases and insights. This series conveys such a texture to me, but in a way that isn't communicated through "facts." The masked faces of "Masquerade" are of our moment, but belong to a Venetian past that remains distant from us.

Laurel Swab's vision also is intrigued with the possibilities of the human form, creating a well-curated flow from Dass's photographs to Swab's three-dimensional forms. The artistic tension in Swab's work is in the wonderful paradox she offers us of giving form to the formless: the afterlife, angels, the symbolically charged toolkit of life and death. Swab's distinctly gendered forms -- both male and female figures share the joys and burdens of being -- convey a grounded ethereality akin to William Blake's angels (minus the angry onus of a white-bearded patriarch).

"Sometimes You Need the Help of Angels" captures, in three simple but miraculous forms, the split second of connection between mortal and immortal: The male angel grasps the female mortal's hand just as she appears to be losing herself into the pit. The "pit" (which can be whatever demons haunt you, from disease to despair and back again) is brilliantly materialized in the pedestal of the work. The base of the sculpture has come a long way in the 20th century and Swab has just pushed it in a new way through her seamless integration of the pedestal into the artwork (see also "She Gave Up her Arms for Wings").

Symbols are made tangible in Swab's work (as in "Seven Elements of the Afterlife," a curatorial display of the objects of the afterlife) and tangibilities are rendered symbolic (as in the minimalist grid of body parts in "Nine Figure Studies"). Swab asks us as viewers to move between the material and the immaterial. Her modest figures offer us exemplars of the superhuman act of living in the everyday world, a world that often resists our desire to change. For example, Swab's "She Gave Up her Arms for Wings", is both tragic and heroic: The figure has willingly sacrificed her arms, but the desired wings (four sets in fact) remain out of reach, displayed in niches in the rectangular pedestal on which the figure stands. This piece spoke to me about the possibilities that arise from sacrifice, more than the state of armlessness, so to speak. Again, Swab assigns us a crucial task in completing the work: Which set of wings will we choose for this tiny woman and, in our imaginations, what trajectory do we foresee for her?

Dawn Wilde's poetic eight canvases in her "French Water" series are an inspired reminiscence of her rainy day visit to Giverny, France, the final retreat of Impressionist Claude Monet. She is in good company as one moved by Monet: When his huge oil paintings of water lilies were first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the New York art world of the 1940s exploded with the possibility of enormous, abstract canvases. Wilde keeps her canvases fairly small, which suits the intimate scale of the FAC's Garden Gallery, recapturing the eye's pleasure in witnessing light and color on water through her skill in transposing that elusive vision onto canvas. Standing in the middle of this installation of eight paintings, which share an undercoat of cadmium yellow that subtly enhances their visual coherence and warmth, we imagine ourselves adrift in a rowboat on one of Giverny's many ponds. This layering of paint, according to the artist, not only counters the cold quality of the rainy day, but also satisfies her "penchant for thinking about the correspondence between the layers of actual material and the layers of past and present, far and near, what is familiar and unfamiliar." Wilde's achievement in layering visual and cognitive perspectives is equally evident in her fascinating use of multiple viewpoints: We see the majestic weeping willow from across the pond; a shadowy shoreline of vegetation from midrange; and at last, the reflections of white light on purple water dazzling our eyes.

Once again, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center has not disappointed us with its selection of contemporary regional artists. Each year I attend this group show, I find work that pushes me to think and to delight in the act of seeing. These three talented artists encourage us to look at the beauty of the surface, but to peer into its depths as well.


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