By Tom Wachunas
Of all the ideas for a group show offered by Translations curator Craig Joseph across the past several years, this one, called “Paper, Rock, Scissors: The Art of War,” is in his words, “…one of our wildest concepts yet.” I couldn’t agree more, and I would add that it’s one of the most enchanting, too, in the grandest sense of the word. So to continue, I’ll first give you Craig Joseph’s initial media release (the exhibit has been up since October’s First Friday):
“We got together with five of our favorite artists - painters Steve Ehret and Kat Francis, and sculptors Gail Trunick, Kelly Rae, and Breanna Boulton. Together we brainstormed fifteen different environments - for example an abandoned carnival, a trailer park, a meadow, a train yard, etc. Together Steve and Kat have painted fifteen large and gorgeous landscape paintings - 2'x 4' and 3' x 5'. Then, our sculptor ladies were handed the task of building people or creatures or beings that would inhabit these environments. The catch? One of them would build and incorporate paper, one would build and incorporate natural materials, and one would build and incorporate metal. And the final result is fifteen scenes of sorts, with the creatures doing battle on little shelves with the landscape paintings as backdrops. You, the audience, will get to decide who wins: paper, rock, or scissors.”
Remember? Paper wraps rock, rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper. Here then, an old children’s game has morphed into 15 ambitious tableaux. Each work includes a trio of cleverly constructed resident characters. I say “characters” only because these works have a particularly theatrical sensibility, as if they could be set designs for an elaborate stage production featuring some sort of confrontation or aggression among the denizens of a given environment.
Those environments are represented through exquisitely executed oil-on-panel paintings. More fascinating is the fact that while these luscious backdrops are collaborative configurations, they’re visually seamless. This is to say that in any given painting there’s no ostensible break in style or technique across the picture plane. Which artist contributed what aspects? That would be my direct question to the painters, Steve Ehret and Kat Francis, when I see them at the artists talkback scheduled for Monday, Nov. 16 at 7:00 p.m. in the gallery. I include here a link to the public invitation:
In each of these scenarios, the “battle” on the shelf placed just below the painting isn’t necessarily a graphic illustration of a conflict in progress, though sometimes that much is implied. The iconography tends instead to be somewhat elliptical in that regard, and seems to symbolize confrontations that could be in the past, present, or yet to come.
Four of the five artists here are women, including the three sculptors: Gail Trunick, Kelly Rae, and Breanna Boulton. Their manipulations of diverse substances are remarkably inventive. The elemental physicality of their pieces reminds me that efficacious representations of war, whether metaphorical or literal, are not the strict purview of men alone. While there are some objects we might regard as relatively whimsical or delicate in their conveyance of a “feminine” perspective, in most of the pieces, it is an aggressive and powerfully poetic spirit that abides in their earthen materiality.
Conceptually, the integration of the women’s sculptures with the painted backdrops is often an intriguing exercise in what one could call aesthetic alchemy. The juxtaposition of 3D and 2D iconography can transform the immediately apparent content of the 2D backdrops into alternative realities. For example, viewed by itself, the painting for Factory is a convincing depiction of modern industrial architecture. But the accompanying sculptures are eerie evocations of Dark Age weaponry or torture devices, imbuing the painting with the suggestion of a medieval fortress. Similarly, while the painting in Forest is sublimely expressive of sylvan fecundity, the sculptures provide a nearly mythological dimension that re-contextualizes the forest into a wholly numinous, magical place.
To continue the analogy to stage production, while the artists have engineered the sites wherein various actions can occur, as well as the cast of players to carry them out, YOU, the viewer, are ultimately the playwright. In that capacity, you get to construct the narrative. It’s a subtle take on interactive art. Not simply a passive observer, you’re a collaborator in completing the meaning of the work.
But in determining the victor in any specific battle, beware. In this context, paper may well survive an attack by scissors, rock might be too fragile to crush scissors, and scissors rendered impotent against paper. Art wars can be unpredictable that way.
PHOTOS, from top: Forest; Arctic Circle; Tribal Village; Factory; Abandoned Amusement Park (detail)