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New York Times, January 6, 2008

Art That Walks a Fine Line Between Reality and Illusion



Published: January 6, 2008


In “The Republic,” Plato uses an allegory of prisoners chained in a cave watching shadows on a wall to suggest that the things we believe are real are often only an illusion, a kind of puppet show of real life. To experience true reality we must escape from the cave of ignorance and into the clear light of day. “Shadow Show,” at Real Art Ways in Hartford, picks up in various ways on this metaphor. The curators — Elizabeth Keithline, a Rhode Island artist who originated the idea, and Kristina Newman-Scott, director of visual arts at Real Art Ways — have assembled the work of 16 artists exploring shadows and concepts of shadowing in contemporary culture. Exhibits range from installations that use actual shadows for visual effect to video art and elaborate conceptual pieces concerned with issues of surveillance, memory, perception and truth. That the majority of the artwork is installed in the dark is, I suspect, more an accident of curatorial selection than any nod to Plato, but it nonetheless adds an overall, welcome air of mystery. Entering this exhibition you feel as if you are stepping into an alternate universe, a place where nothing is entirely as it seems. Or maybe for the first time we begin to see the delicate nature of reality. Using digital animation software, Rupert Nesbitt creates realistic-looking video landscapes that move. An occasional distortion of perspective reveals that the imagery has no basis in reality, and that these are purely imaginative spaces, but most of the time you think you are looking at a real environment.

Shadowy government activities are the subject of William Allen’s nine-panel text paintings examining the history, purpose and mythology around the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center, a United States government structure near Bluemont, Va. Here, beneath a FEMA training base, is an underground operation designed to house government officials in case of a nuclear emergency. Humor is lacking from this show, with the exception of William Lamson’s one-minute animated video loop. It is made up of photographs of the artist lying face down in various suburban landscapes, that have been spliced together to make it seem as if his motionless body is sliding along the ground like some giant worm. Though it is sort of silly, the imagery is captivating.

What I also like about this video is the way in which it plays with our willingness to respond positively toward that which we know isn’t real. This is in some ways the opposite of what Plato was talking about, for it involves a knowing appreciation of something clearly artificial — as if we are heading back into Plato’s cave just for the fun of it. Several artists in this show are interested in the idea of traces, evidence of things left behind in the landscape, or in the mind, or on the body. This is a popular theme in contemporary art but has a particular, even special relevance here. Perhaps most interesting among the works of this kind is a collaborative installation by an artist, Duncan Laurie, and an electrical engineer, Gordon Salisbury. It is installed in a darkened room off to one side of the exhibition. Inside the room is a rock hooked up to a device measuring energy waves, and a video of hallucinogenically pulsating signals that represent naturally occurring energy waves in plants and rocks. Whereas Mr. Laurie and Mr. Salisbury’s installation is all about picturing hidden energy flows, Olu Oguibe’s sculptural installation, “Buggy Memorial to the Unknown Child,” makes manifest complex human emotional states. This deeply personal work is all about the artist’s feelings surrounding the pointless death of his brother, at the age of 4, from dehydration after a routine attack of measles. Things half-hidden are the subject of Sam Ekwurtzel’s pair of video loops, a compilation of close-ups of photographs of television sets for sale on eBay. Mr. Ekwurtzel discovered that when the owners photographed their television sets to sell online, many inadvertently captured reflections of themselves and their living rooms on the reflective surface of the television screens. By cropping and blowing up these images the artist reveals a hidden world.

There are many other interesting works here dealing with shadowy issues, ranging from street surveillance of random individuals in snapshot photographs by Erik Gould to the documentation of the noises and atmosphere of an airport lounge in an installation by Barbara Westermann. Like so many other artworks here, they zoom in on things that we look at but rarely see.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Art for thought
Words, sculpture, objects, video fire the imagination at new gallery

Sara Eisen | Enquirer contributor


What:  Observatory,” a mixed media show by  William Allen and Barbara Westermann.

Where: Clay Street Press Gallery, 1312 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine.

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays only. Additional hours by appt. Through March 15, 2005

Telephone: (513) 241-3232.

The newly opened, shining white-walled Clay Street Press Gallery presents a provocative collection of creative and intellectual mixed media art by William Allen and Barbara Westermann, both of Rhode Island. The show, entitled, "Observatory," includes Allen's paintings and prints of his self-titled "word art," alongside Westermann's sculpture, video, hanging reliefs and plaster domestic objects. And there are the couple's collaboration pieces: embroidered pillows, which can be seen right now in the “Multiple Strategies” show at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

Allen, who also writes poetry, seeks specific words and strategically places them with each other in his pieces, conveying ambiguous but meaningful ideas about various social, historical and philosophical themes. In "Ten Commandments," he showcases a personal version of the widely recognized religious doctrine including commandments, such as "Kissing King William" and "Stammering out Sentences." According to Allen, it is an attempt to "work historical and religious ideas into new directions."

Westermann's work, on the other hand, is divided into three categories: information architecture, architectural sculpture and interior architecture, all dealing with the mental and physical connotations of each form. An example of the architectural sculpture is "How to Make Pudding," a television showing a continuous loop video of colorless boiling pudding, alluding to concepts of formation and space.

As suggested by the show's title "Observatory," both Allen and Westermann explore and interpret themes of the cosmos, the concepts of space, interior and exterior, and the universe. A fine example is found in Allen's "Craters of the Moon," which displays the names of certain craters that were chosen deliberately for the visual, aesthetic and conceptual value of each name.

As one pieces together a puzzle, the viewer may ponder the artwork, each bursting with meaning and connotations of their own, and finally determine what connects them to each other and to the central idea in this masterful compilation of art. The show features a fresh, progressive duo of artists and offers the spectator a unique opportunity to stimulate the mind and imagination.

“Three Pillows” by Barbara Westermann and William Allen is in the Multiple Strategies exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, Nov. 20, 2004-Aug. 21, 2005