East City Art Reviews: "Retold" at Artdc Gallery

By Eric Hope on February 15, 2012

Retold, currently on view at the Artdc gallery in Hyattsville, brings together nine seemingly disparate artists focusing on a simple theme:  mining stories from the refuse of life itself.

Curated by local artist and educator Deborah Winram, Retold uses a T.S. Elliot poem found in the catalogue for MOMA’s 1961 exhibition on assemblage as a springboard for “visual storytelling”.  Historically, assemblage’s most notable characteristic is its integration and use of found objects within the body of the work in lieu of (or in addition to) more traditional mediums such as

Works by Brian Slagle, C. Mason, Michael Mendez and Kristin Bohlander

acrylics or inks.  Here Elliot’s poem speaks to the decay of forgotten “things”, yet infers that this detritus still has a spark of life and story to tell.  Winram’s goal in this exhibition is to showcase artists who use aspects of assemblage to inject this spark of life into the narrative of their work.

The nine artists, all participants of last year’s Artomatic in Fredrick, display works with an eye for storytelling; yet it is interesting to note that several are photographers rather than sculptors or mixed-media artists.   At first their linkage to the process of assemblage felt tenuous and seemed to imply that modern technology is perhaps making traditional assemblage techniques less relevant.  When questioned about this discrepancy, Winram posits something of a more nuanced view- to her eye, the photographers, with their focus on discarded objects and tightly-structured linear compositions, echo the ethos of assemblage while simultaneously updating it with a 21st-century sensibility.  While not apparent in every photo, this notion has merit and the photos that successfully wed the traditional with the modern are a feast for the eyes.

"How to Explain Painting to a Pig", closeup view

Upon entering the street-front gallery, the observer is immediately confronted by Brian Slagle’s How to Explain Painting to a Pig, a showstopping, multidimensional piece that best fits the definition of traditional assemblage.  Slagle, whose art often references his agrarian past, uses everything from old tin cans and cloth to metal and pencil drawings to give us an cheeky read of the all-mighty art world.  The gallery’s walls (on rolling casters) have been spaced to provide this piece its proper due, and the viewer will surely make this piece their first stop.

While Slagle’s piece dominates the room, more quiet gems await. Black and white photography features prominently in the exhibition, such as in Michael Mendez’s nostalgic Pop Bottle, a large-scale image of its namesake, which plays with light and shadow to delightful effect, providing a good example of using modern processes (in this case, an archival inkjet print) to breathe life into old, discarded objects.  After all, when was the last time

"Pop Bottle", Michael Mendez

you drank pop from a bottle?  Taking nostalgia to a more somber place, Burnt Cabin Window by C. Mason, a tightly-shot closeup of a dish-laden farmhouse kitchen sink presents a myriad of story lines, not all of which will end on a happy note.  Jesse Cohen’s Ziatype prints (a type of photogram) are dark, mysterious pieces that read more like charcoal drawings than photos.  Cohen’s works are the hardest photographs to decipher in their abstraction, yet perhaps the most evocative of unadulterated emotion.  Tints of color can be found in the photos of Jenny Wallace and Carlos Fyfe.  Wallace’s photos, all untitled, document her subject’s fleeting occupation of a physical space and inject a time element into the narrative of the piece.  Fyfe’s work, particularly, Fortress No. 14, tightly focuses on a few key elements (a disembodied arm, an iron door), expanding the narrative possibilities in the process.

Mixed-media and sculpture certainly don’t take the back seat in this show.  While Slagle’s main work might dominate (he has a total of three in the show), Jeff Bohlander’s wall pieces demonstrate the close-knit relationship between collage and assemblage.  Likewise sculptor Steve Dobbin deftly combines assemblage with traditional sculpture.  Dobbin’s Karl’s Barrow

"Karl's Barrow", Steven Dobbin

uses a found object (a wheelbarrow) as the vessel for the traditional, sculptural facet of his piece, the result of which is a charming riff on mans’ control of the environment.

Also contrasting nicely with the linear photography are the playful, three-dimensional works by Kristin Bohlander resting atop plinths in the middle of the room (additional forms are hanging in the gallery’s office/conference room).  Using organic materials such as as mud, felt and found twigs, Bohlander’s Breathe and Mini Pod Series seemingly anthropomorphic larval forms-cum-earth creatures  look like they might upend themselves and wiggle across the floor.  The easy-breezy charm of the pieces masks the inherent physical struggles that organic bodies (such as our own) all go through during the cycle of life.  Caught in seeming moments of flowery awakening, we forget for just a moment that decay and destruction are somewhere over the horizon.

"Mini Pod Series" and "Breathe" by Kristin Bohlander

It is easy in a themed group show this large (9 artists, 46 pieces) to have moments of unevenness.   By showcasing the possibilities of assemblage (both old and modern) rather than attempting to be a compendium on the movement, this show largely sidesteps this conundrum.  In focusing intently on the narrative possibilities created by the structural forms, Winram invites the viewer to take a moment and engage their own poetic license. You might be surprised where your mind takes you!

Retold runs through February 25th, 2012 at the Artdc Gallery in Hyattsville.  For more information, visit their website at www.Artdc.com