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“Trigger and Reconfigure” challenges traditional views of art

by DIANA SU, ’14
The Wellesley College News

The biggest question art aficionados have yet to resolve is the painfully open-ended and subjective: “What is art?” It seems to divide those who flock to the so-called “traditional” oil paintings of still lifes and landscapes, and those who find artistic solace in simplistic blocks of primary colors. To muster any appreciation for the Jewett Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, “Trigger and Reconfigure,” the viewer must throw any preconceptions of what art is out the window. The exhibition prompts not only the elusive question “What is art?” but also quizzically raised brows and the bewildered outburst, “What is that?”

Abbie Read

“Trigger and Reconfigure,” which opened Jan. 27, features the work of artists Abbie Read, Laura Evans, Jessica Straus and Antoinette Winters. It strives to illuminate the artistic process by focusing on simple, ordinary objects or images (the “triggers”) and the resulting creative conversations the artists had with them (the “reconfigures”). The exhibition’s concept of expressing artistic inspirations from the tangible world is praiseworthy in itself, but it falls short in the execution. Unfortunately, the artists’ personal conversations with their work are sometimes lost in translation.

Jessica Straus

The organization of the exhibition—a sparse display of pieces surrounded by cryptically bare white walls—confuses more than it enhances. In lieu of explanatory texts giving background on the artists, or descriptions of the work’s title and medium, viewers are provided paltry and impersonal packets with numbers corresponding to each piece. The natural result is a baffling scavenger hunt of a viewing experience that calls for the audience to flip back and forth between pages to forage for any clues of what the work might mean.  The absence of textual support elicits the sense that something is missing. Without that missing piece, sometimes the art triggers only blanks.

“Trigger and Reconfigure” will not give you an easy answer to the questions “What is art?” or even “What is it?” It challenges, deceives and mystifies, making it an exhibition that not everyone may enjoy.

Fortunately, the exhibition does at times, manage to hold up its end of the “trigger and reconfigure” proposal. Amidst the cryptic ambience of the art show, Read’s mixed media productions of sewn together security envelopes and box assemblages, which capture the charming sense of former times, provide a soothing familiarity. Her Quiltish Grid series, which is composed of a collection of sewn-together notebook paper scraps, security envelopes and pages of old dictionaries, glazed over with pastel blues and yellows and arranged geometrically, pleasantly greets the eye with its comforting resemblance to the very relatable image of a quilt. Read’s collector sensibilities work to her advantage in evoking a genuine connection from the audience—the little snippets of dictionary text or postage stamps hidden throughout the Quiltish Grid series coyly tease the viewer into the illusion that something looks familiar and identifiable while still leaving an appropriate sense of uncertainty.  Quiltish Grid’s uncertainty does not overwhelm. It invites the viewer to imaginatively speculate about the meanings of all these collected items, and successfully expresses the “reconfiguration.”

Read’s other work, patterned box diptychs featuring a found object or image on the right side (a bone, a picture of rust or constellation, for example) and an artistic re-interpretation on the left, presents the most straightforward representation of the theme. In the “Cosmos” box diptych, the right side consists of twig-like brown thread intertwined with a heart, held down by brightly contrasting red thread. On the left, the image of a star-studded sky and the blush of red fill the space. These associations, confined in the spaces of dispassionate squares, make Read’s thought process jump out. Leaving the box diptychs closed and allowing viewers to unveil the pieces themselves, however, may have furthered the intimacy Read said she finds in the simple act of opening a book.

Winters, the painter of the group, produced muted pencil and painting sketches on delicate rice paper. Though the pastel colors are easy on the eyes, the simple pencil sketches offer little to interpret. The titles of her work, like “The Night Sky at 9pm (Reversed)” and “Filling Ourselves with Nothing and Everything” seem to offer more depth and richness than her artwork does.

Evans’ work is probably the most puzzling of the exhibition. Her pieces are a study in juxtaposition, with media ranging from hard, cold rusting metal to soft, brightly-colored pillows. The shapes of these sand-filled pillows, which taper off into appendages resembling slugs and mandrake roots, make the typically inviting soft pillow an unwelcome sight. Evans said she “likes making things that people can’t categorize,” which is exactly what works like “Carrot Top,” a vivid yellow pillow twisting out of an aluminum cylinder, do. “Bulging is Normal,” perhaps the quirkiest and most relatable of her works, features a curving pipe wrapped with bandage gauze and a red pillow blossoming out from beneath a copper piece encircled by the words “Bulging is Normal.” The humorous text provides the crucial clue for viewers to decide what exactly “normal bulging” means and effectively conveys Evans’ desire to express the bursting of suppressed emotion. Much of Evans’ work bucks convention and scatters any existing knowledge of what art could be. This may be liberating for the artist, but it can be frustrating for a viewer who seeks some kind of recognizable reconfiguration. In any case, prepare to consider the question “What is it?” on a whole other level upon viewing Evans’ art.

Without a doubt, “Trigger and Reconfigure” succeeds in throwing curveballs that baffle and confuse the viewers. Nevertheless, those who love to ask questions may find “Trigger and Reconfigure” an afternoon delight. To those who love to find answers: stay home.

Laura Evans

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