East City Art Reviews: Sue Wrbican’s Well Past the Echo

By Elsabé Johnson Dixon on November 9, 2017
Installation view of Sue Wrbican Well Past the Echo at the Greater Reston Arts Center.
Photo credit: Johanna Ballou

Sue Wrbican’s Well Past the Echo, curated by Lily Siegel, is on view through November 18, 2017 at the Greater Reston Art Center (GRACE). The exhibition shows a trajectory of Sue Wrbican’s work over the last ten years. The artist navigated ten-foot ceilings and two supportive pillar structures to produce a pedestrian pathway through white, wind-worn boat sails revealing a narrative of post-contemporary photographs with a surrealist bent. She also included small structured maquettes on pedestals in the installation. These smaller forms duplicate larger sculptures installed at previous exhibitions at Seligmann Center in New York (2015) and during the University of Cincinnati’s Slavoj Žižek Study Conference (2016).

Maquette for Hyphen (Four Views), 2015
32 x 4 x 4 inches
Image Courtesy Sue Wrbican

This is not a show about billowing clouds and gentle breezes but instead connects deeply to chance and the unconscious. The work also keeps in mind the tone of feminist poets such as C. D. Wright and Jorie Graham, who directly influenced Wrbican when she attended poetry workshops at Brown University as a young Rhode Island School of Design graduate student. The exhibition is layered with surrealist structures of intuitive action, spirituality, and technical competence with a hint of automatism and spontaneous explorations. During the exhibition, Sue Wrbican also premiered her hand-bound artist book Biography of Catastrophe and the Eventual Outcome of an Instant, which serves as a catalogue for her ten-year trajectory as an artist. The opening page of the book holds a definition of catastrophe by author Rebecca Solnit:

Catastrophe comes from the Greek Kata, or down, and streiphen, or turning over. It means an upset of what is expected and was originally used to mean a plot twist. To emerge into the unexpected is not always terrible…[1]

The pages of this artist’s hand-stitched book document many photographs that can be seen in the show itself, such as One year after Ike, Drained (2009/2017), showing a shipwreck Wrbican encountered in Galveston Bay in 2009 which had been underwater for a year after hurricane Ike came through on September 13, 2008. She came to understand that every part of a boat is designed for a specific purpose and that the wreck she saw at Galveston that day had no sails. But she knew the sails had been designed to work with the wind, the tide, and the currents as well as with the earth itself. Wrbican says: “I saw a ship broken down without sails and I liked the questions it posed. It was a long-form epic poem.” A yachtsman gave the artist some used boat sails  stimulating her later and ongoing work with sails.

One Year After Ike (Black), 2009/2017
Archival digital print
40 x 60 inches
Image Courtesy Sue Wrbican

During a Rauschenberg Residency in 2013, Wrbican juxtaposed sails with the remnants of trees that had been damaged during another hurricane passing through Captiva Island, Florida the year before.  She photographed acrobat Arnough Caizergues in aerial positions and in dialogue with the hurricane damaged trees that held the hoisted sails.

Three Trees, 2013 / 2017
Archival digital print
62 x 42 inches
Image Courtesy Sue Wrbican

Wrbican said that she had always wanted to work with a material initially designed or used for something else. Over time and as a result of usage, sails lose their power. She wanted to question this notion and transform the idea of decay. Wrbican lets the existing marks and material history of the sails dictate the direction the work might take. She vacillates between representation and abstraction and then fractures and remixes these images in a surrealist process.

The Eventual Outcome of an Instant, 2015
Sculpture at Seligmann Center, Sugarloaf, NY
20 feet x 48 inches x36 inches
Image Courtesy Sue Wrbican

Through online research of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Wrbican discovered the billowing sails in the paintings of Kay Sage who was married to Yves Tanguy.  Also during the course of her research, Wrbican encountered an exhibition titled Double Solitaire, in which Steven Robinson Miller assembled all Kay Sage’s work in a catalogue alongside that of Tanguy’s. One Kay Sage painting in particular, In the Third Sleep, seemed to conjure parallel imagery Wrbican established with her sails. Upon closer investigation, these paintings resonated with Wrbican, as did the style Kay Sage used to produce her work. Wrbican started resurrecting the painted two-dimensional structures that she saw in Kay Sage’s paintings and built them as three-dimensional sculptures at the Seligmann Center. By doing this, Wrbican underlined the work’s historical and cultural provenance as it pertains to a female surrealist painter.

Art Historian Julie Martin and Bob Whitman invited Wrbican to install these structures at the Seligman Center in Sugarloaf, NY. The Seligmanns, for whom the center is named, often hosted New York surrealist artists such as Marcel Duchamp, André Breton and Yves Tanguy. Wrbican contemplated the unusual connection between the Seligmann site, Kay Sage’s surrealist paintings and Wrbican’s own postmodern parallax investigations with sails.

In the summer of 2015, Wrbican proceeded to camp on the Seligmann property with a team of George Mason University students and erected a 20-foot high sculpture called Hyphen borrowing the title from a Kay Sage painting. Wrbican had envisioned building the structure from salvaged wood and repurposed architectural fixtures.  Upon her arrival, she was pleasantly surprised to have had access to fire-damaged wood obtained from a nearby facility that burned.  It is also said of Kay Sage that she dreamed of burning scaffolding before she painted In the Third Sleep. “What are scaffolds for, and what does it mean when they are on fire,” Wrbican mused before she built  Hyphen at Seligmann Center.

Installation view of Sue Wrbican Well Past the Echo at the Greater Reston Arts Center.
Photo credit: Johanna Ballou

During a panel discussion hosted by GRACE, philosopher Rachel Jones, stated: “Biography of a Catastrophe charts Sue Wrbican’s chance encounter with a hurricane; It also a tracks a repeated thread in her practice that involves working with contingency.  And, in particular, contingent encounters with humans, artworks and elemental non-human forces of nature.”

Much of what we see at GRACE—sails separated from their boats and retied to the walls and ceiling of the gallery, or the photograph of a stranded ship called One Year After Ike, Drained, (2009/2017)—speak of catastrophe as a turning point, not necessarily disastrous, but more as an unexpected beginning or new possibility.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

The exhibition is on view through November 18, 2017 at the Greater Reston art Center (GRACE). GRACE is located at 12001 Market Street, Suite 103 Reston, VA 20190. For more information, including gallery hours, visit restonarts.org