December 14, 2010

A Show for the Wide-Minded

Planning for anything more than a day or so "out and about" has been a challenge this fall. Still, I had been holding out hope that I MIGHT get to treat myself to Scot Wittman's solo show this weekend, and was thrilled when it became clear that the stars seemed to finally be aligning in my favor. (Throughout this post, clicking on the photos will enable you to see a larger version of them.)

I'd never been to the Millbrook School before, and was glad to have detailed directions as well as a navigator (hi, Brigid!) to help me find it in the dark. The two gallery spaces were gorgeous and well-suited to Wittman's wide-ranging meditation on science, humanity, and the ways in which we make sense of our world, and if it hadn't been for the threat of impending snow and an hour's drive to my ultimate destination, I would have stayed much longer. (I was at the show for probably a little less than two hours, which was nowhere NEAR enough time to take it all in.)

(The artist & two of his subjects)

The opening was happily crowded, and included in the crowd were several of the subjects of Wittman's mischievous "re-combined" portraits of identical twins. These larger-than-life photographic studies appear at first glance to be uncomplicated "head shots" of individuals, but are in fact each a merged image created from two different portraits of a pair of identical twins. Several of the people in attendance knew the twins in question, and when I got there, a cluster of Millbrook students were excitedly talking about the print that combined two of their classmates. "He says that this is his eye," said one. For those who didn't know the twins before the show, the opening night treat was that the twins were there! So there were ample opportunities to look from the work, to its inspiration, and back again.

In the background of the above photo you can see one of the panels of another work, a separated diptych in which a non-twin student is pictured in two projected images. Most of the images were stills, but every now and then Wittman interjects a moving image (the girl on the right holds a leaf, which suddenly falls to the ground), which is gone again almost as soon as the viewer notices. This resulted in one of my favorite art-related sensations... the feeling of looking at the non-exhibit world with different expectations. Still life seemed less reliably still after this work.

The two students at the rear of this photo have just realized that one of the twin pairs are in the room and are excitedly craning their necks in order to get a better view.

Some of the pieces in the show were both engaging and unsettling, as evidenced by this Houdini-inspired piece. The straightjacketed and hooded "bodies" (there are two, which is somewhat difficult to see in this shot) had a kind of creepy allure. For me there was also a bit of Abu Ghraib resonance, which made me wonder how long it will be before hooded figures don't have that. As for the chained stump... well, what do you think this is all about? What is inescapable in our lives? How are we connected to and disconnected from the natural world?

Questions about our connection to the natural world were also raised by the collection of pieces shown in the background in the above photo. (Easier to see if you click to see the larger version of the photo.) In these pieces, several silouetted images of birds were coupled with an audio recording which participants could listen to via earbuds dangling from each frame. The recordings were sometimes bird song, but at other times... well, I don't want to spoil the piece too much. Suffice it to say that this work, with its play on expectations and the tension between live & recorded sound, was another one I could happily have spent a lot more time with.

This chocolate-covered skeleton was one of the pieces that gallery visitors tended to stop and stay in front of for a while. We are accustomed to thinking of skeletons as medical specimens or as reminders of the inherently finite nature of our existence. A chocolate-dipped skeleton seems at once irreverent and transformed. In my world, chocolate is for eating. But no one is going to eat a skeleton, right? Can a skeleton have a second life? Skeletons are meant to be clothed in muscle and flesh, but in light of the show's cloning theme, this one "takes on" a more flexible set of possibilities.

I didn't take any pictures in the second gallery space, mostly because I knew from previous experience of Wittman's richly detailed work that the images wouldn't do the work justice. Wittman has taken the unfolding progress of stem cell research as one of his inspirations for this new work, which features large "twinned" silouettes cut from maps of "twin" cities connected to research or other developments in the field. The figures all represent mind-bendingly contrasting combinations of skill sets, e.g. a figure doing a yoga stretch has three medical syringes protruding from her raised leg. The juxtapositions sometimes have a whimsical feel, while at the same time inviting a more serious second look. As is so often the case with Wittman's work, the tensions inherent in the work generate questions in the mind of the viewer, which is part of what made this show so engaging. And there's at least one piece I didn't even have a chance to talk about. I left the show wondering how long Wittman had been thinking through the ideas underlying this complex and rewarding show; when I asked him, he confirmed that some of the seeds of these works were planted over a year ago. It was wonderful to have a chance to see those seeds come to fruition...

(Some more photos of this show
by the fab Ian Bates are right over here.
This solo show is only up through January 6th,
I'm hopeful that between now and then
lots of people will take the time to
to visit the
Millbrook School and see it. Well worth it.)

No comments: