Though monochromatism dominates three of the newest exhibits at the Mobile Museum of Art (4850 Museum Drive), don’t confuse it with a lack of depth. On the contrary, they present a rich subtlety of texture and emotion plumbing the complexities of the human experience. They’re tortured and introspective, humorous and soothing.
Here’s the Artifice advice: Go from the top down. When you enter, head straight to the second floor.
First, you’ll encounter Michael Olszewski’s “Meaning and Light.” Aside from a row of grey-field watercolor abstracts that appear as ink wash, most of the Chicago artist’s work is rendered in textiles. Wool, felt, metal, silk, cotton, linen and leather are stacked and bound into abstract assemblies then framed.
Maybe the most literal of the bunch is “Innermost,” wherein silk fabric and textile ink create the illusion of torn and discarded notebook paper that looks plucked from a gutter, its scribblings smudged into illegibility by water. Its complexity, like the rest of Olszewski’s pieces, stems from fragility, in minute detail that tiptoes forward through its sense of intimacy.
The east gallery is occupied by Stephen Althouse’s “Metanoia,” a collection of sizable photographs the opposite of Olszewski’s cozy pieces. Earlier in his artistic life, Althouse created sculptures of farm implements from wood, leather and forged metal, intended as representations of the untold generations who employed them.
When he began photographing the sculptures, Althouse grew more fascinated with the film representations than the objects created. He could more precisely direct its emotional impact.
Althouse imbues photos with a linguistic component, utilizing digital imaging manipulation to embed his thoughts into the subject material. The verbal element is unobtrusive, often softly placed in Braille or foreign languages, and blends with the textures that leap from the black and white images.
A box of rusted nails bears the phrase “The world holds us captive.” A wizened and broken wooden wagon explains its lasting spirit for work despite physical incapacity. A washboard presents a Latin phrase about the suffering of life.
A dried plant in autumn bloom is clasped with the phrase “Be patient and tough.”
Numerous photos of pickaxes, hammers and other farm tools simply state “Give us.”
A shovel harkens Old and New Testament verses about vanity’s folly, human myopia for profit and the humility of death. Constant reference to ancient languages and sources, the emphasis on suffering and tribulation conjured universal touchstones spanning cultures and millennia. It feels immeasurably expansive.
At the farthest end of the gallery, on its most imposing wall stretches a series with wooden wheels, walnuts or other objects photographed on folds of white cloth. Owing partially to their scale, the lighting and all the elements combined, these pieces hold a hypnotic depth unmatched by the rest of an admittedly impressive collection. No matter the angle or proximity, they always seem on the verge of revealing new contour or secrets.
On the first floor, Jane Cassidy’s work in the gallery off the lobby is a baptism to wash away the weight of life’s trials. She employs sound as well as sight, aiming to invoke synesthesia, muddling senses until they are atypically linked.
In a pair of smaller pieces, Cassidy utilizes headphones and moving images seen through mounted viewfinders. The first meshes Hubble Space Telescope images with musical chords and snippets of her parents’ voices. A second follows a luminescent jellyfish in clear tropical waters.
It’s her large, site-specific work “Undersea Well” that is most memorable. Viewers lounge in a vast darkened room as watery images are scattered by multifaceted lenses down the length of its wall, splashing on the floor and ceiling. The reflections and spectrums from ripples, foam and lapping waves are swaddled in aquatic sounds, churning, gurgling, bubbling over gently swelling yet subdued organ.
The effect is relaxing, renewing and primal. In a place like Mobile, it couldn’t be more apropos.
In the ground floor vestibule by the Larkins Auditorium, Monica Beasley’s “Feminism and Magical Thinking” explodes in color, satire and whimsy. Its search for balance between culturally embedded constructs of romance against her yearning for feminist fortitude reveal a refreshing self-awareness. Its statements on fantastic standards and frustrations with polar goals is buoyed by a metaphorical eye roll, making it the perfect note on which to cap the visit.
The second-floor exhibits leave in early February. Beasley’s run ends in late March and Cassidy’s in early April. However, to miss them all in one viewing is to miss a wide sweep across our humanity.
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