East City Art Reviews: Three Concurrent Hillyer Exhibitions by Grant McFarland, Monroe Isenberg and Kei Ito

By Elsabé Johnson Dixon on January 23, 2018
Kei Ito
Infertile American Dream
Image Courtesy IA&A at Hillyer

Hillyer’s galleries, filled to capacity within an hour of opening the doors to their first 2018 exhibit on a cold snowy evening January fifth.  The three artists represented in this exhibition are all recent graduates from art schools in the DC region including the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and the University of Maryland, College Park.  These artists offer a close-up view of Post-Contemporary art produced in our area.  Critic Brendon Kralik has recently defined the meaning of the term in a Huffington Post article titled The Post- Contemporary Paradigm, summarizing a previous discussion of the term by Richard T. Scott:

 The post contemporary is concerned with re-constructing meaningful traditions by drawing upon an unprecedented access to knowledge of every era in history. Though it draws upon the traditions of the past, it is forward-looking.

At Hillyer, Japanese-born artist Kei Ito says his work was influenced by Timothy Druckrey, the director of the MFA Photographic and Electronic Media program at MICA, and Laura Parnes who also teaches in the same program. His work has an interdisciplinary approach. Large photographs mounted on wood lie on the floor in the middle of the gallery and resemble infrared images.  He made these by placing pieces of small scale-model buildings on light sensitive paper (Type-C print) and exposing it to direct sunlight.  Ito says he wanted to make a cultural connection to his grandfather’s survival of Hiroshima, and to today’s political climate in the United States.  His exhibition title, Only What We Can Carry is a deliberate derivative of the title of Japanese-American Internment author Lawson Fusao Inada’s book What We Could Carry.  Through chromogenic color prints, Ito’s work recalls assemblages of infrared thermal imaging, used for army surveillance and medical procedures.  Ito states that artworks regarding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki such as the Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki and the Myth of Tomorrow by Taro Okamoto both influenced him, but that John Boltanski changed the way Ito approached his own work.  Boltanski’s use of the photographic image to link the past and the present, shows how photography can move between time zones. On the walls of the Hillyer’s main gallery, documents from Japanese-American internment camps and objects exposed on light sensitive paper are intertwined in a layered composition that links us to present political issues such as immigration, nuclear war and cultural relativity within a global context.

All of the artists represented at the Hillyer this month, draw on traditions of the past with a forward-looking stance. Monroe Isenberg and Grant McFarland are  represented in the galleries adjacent to Kei Ito’s.  Both studied under Foon Sham at the University of Maryland.  Isenberg and McFarland were involved in the construction and installation of Foon Sham’s 62 foot long sculpture Escape at the American University Museum in the summer of 2017. Even though these two artists take different routes, their deep traditional practices are firmly rooted within a post-contemporary context.

Monroe Isenberg
Steel, water, light
Image Courtesy IA&A at Hillyer

The dark, minimalist form of Isenberg’s Lighthouse environment draws on the experimental work of artists of the 1970s such as Anne Truitt and Fred Sandback, as well as Robert Irwin’s work which grew out of the “Light and Space” movement of the 1960s.  These traditions focus less on ideas and more on sensory perception. The Lighthouse installation aims to create an atmosphere of awe–almost a spiritual experience that reveals the wonder of transcendence as it intensifies sensory perception and our understanding of light as well as our awareness of darkness.  Isenberg’s singular geometric shape in the form of a black triangular cone looks heavy, but hovers over a white square of light.  Moving every twenty seconds, the top of the black form is filled with water. The water’s movement—reflected onto the gallery’s walls—produces a sense of the infinite.  Much like the concept of a lighthouse, the form embodies a paradox. Visible light is only relevant in great darkness. As the brilliant white square seems to “float” there is a momentary sensation of confused depth perception regarding the floor in relation to the light. Isenberg’s Lighthouse uses steel, water and light to create this immersive sculptural installation in a darkened gallery.

Grant McFarland
All set
Slate, pine, steel, bronze, oak, caution sign
Image Courtesy IA&A at Hillyer

In the next gallery adjacent to the Lighthouse is Grant McFarland’s grouping of objects titled Residual. Merriam-Webster describes the definition of residual as the “remainder or residual product or substance; an internal after effect of experience or activity that influences later behavior.”  The arrangement of works in McFarland’s installation evolved out of experiences and time spent at the Salem Art Works in upstate New York where he worked last year as a resident artist and where he will work as a staff member this year.  This area of abandoned mines, barns, and small factories informed his study of post-industrial tendencies and human-environmental interactions. McFarland’s sculptures made from leftover materials, replicating sites and representing scenes from these places, act as visual documentation of human industry on the land.  The first object encountered is a monumental pylon of quarry rocks on a pallet—ready to be sent somewhere for use— but instead, eerily abandoned and frozen in time becoming the memory of an instant before an uncompleted action.  Another work by McFarland titled On the Outside Looking Out, lures the viewer to contemplate two abandoned sites; its construction inspired by the view from an abandoned building site toward an abandoned mine site. Both spaces were somehow cut off and separated from their past.  Here, McFarland uses reclaimed pine boards set inside a window frame.  These he waxed to give a black finish and to create the impression that they aged poorly.  There is a small piece of bent screen that rigidly wafts in the same manner of stillness as the photograph behind it. These remains bear witness to things shut off, shut down, but still visible.

McFarland’s last work poses a question: What have you done for me lately? An axe is set in an upright position between piles of cutting wood,  left in midair and waiting for its user to return.  Above the axe and the wood there is an old radiator face which McFarland turned into a clock. Yellow words spell out: “HOW MANY YEARS FOR A MINUTE OF WARMTH,” and alludes to the idea that we think of time, resources, processes, and material with a short sensibility. Kei Ito, Monroe Isenberg and Grant McFarland all delve into the past and specific cultural platforms to discuss the present.

Hillyer Art Space is located at 9 Hillyer Ct NW Washington, DC.  All three exhibitions are on view through January 28, 2018. Contact the gallery at 202.338.0325 or visit the website at www.athillyer.org