folio arts

Back in Black

New MOCA exhibit deftly mixes monochromaticism with mood and mystery

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Using one color, or a minimalist palette of colors, can be a dicey move. Whether a 2D or 3D work, making a piece with fewer colors could "streamline" a work into a ruminative piece or, on the flip side, creating a one-note idea that's more gasping-art squeak than mesmerizing visual drone. As luck would have it, the current exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is in the first camp, showing works created primarily in one color: black. And, for the most part, the exhibit succeeds in offering a somewhat radical take on how color, even a single color, can affect what we glean from an experience with visual art, through perception, interpretation and surely emotional response.

A Dark Place of Dreams features work by four artists: Louise Nevelson, Chakaia Booker, Lauren Fensterstock and Kate Gilmore. Nevelson (1899-1988) is the central figure and guiding force of the show.

Considered to be one of the more radical, pioneering sculptors of the 20th century, Nevelson is best known for creating large-scale, painted-wood pieces, assemblages made from objects she found in urban environments. The show's three other artists are rather like apostolic heirs to Nevelson's vision; Booker, Fensterstock and Gilmore bring their own flavors to the table, yet Nevelson's pervading influence is clear in the gallery spaces and collective works.

The exhibit displays six 3D and two 2D pieces by Nevelson. The 2D pieces reveal her impressive printmaking skills, indicating a kind of "flattened" representational quality of what she explored through sculpture. Untitled (30-1/8 x 23-3/8 x 4-3/8; 1958), the smallest of Nevelson's 3D assemblages, is a coffin-like cabinet, or arcane treasure box, housing wood planks resembling blades of black grass, a spiraling headstock blooming out of this contained field. It's a strong example of her brilliance-essentially three distinct physical elements, one being the actual container, seemingly creating narratives that rise and fall as one stands before it. Rain Forest Garden (95 x 44 x 11; c. 1964-1979) expands the artist's concepts and approaches to undeniable grandeur. Once-mundane materials, like small slats and bedposts, are morphed into the mystic. Quarter-moon pieces of molding direct one's attention to the center of the piece, then draw the focus away; in total, a sense of stabbing roundedness is at work. The title references a garden, but the piece has a somber, elegiac quality, standing in front of stained glass tempered with shadow. Nevelson can be viewed as a religious artist, in the way that these large-scale works are shrine-like, pointing toward the ineffable and creating a kind of logical holiness; for pieces essentially formed from the randomness of what was found on the street and scrap yard, there is a staggering economy. Divine intervention aside, Nevelson's devotional ability to tap into her higher self, and draw life out of withered planks and black paint, is as impressive as it is rare.

Nevelson began exhibiting her work in the 1940s and came to prominence in the '50s, when Abstract Expressionism ruled the visual art scene. Her work seemed to run counter to, if not defy, a boys' club of paintings replete with macho swaths and frantic color drips. Nevelson shared a sense of process with the abstract expressionists, but while they may have celebrated the lightning-bolt psychology of colored motion on canvas, Nevelson worked methodically, selecting materials and dipping them in her black paint.

A similar methodology is evident in works of Lauren Fensterstock and Chakaia Booker. At 78 x 240 x 26 and solid black, The Order of Things (2016) features Fensterstock in full flight. Three shelves drip with seashells, evoking everything from rotting fruit to cave-born stalactites. Fensterstock (b. 1975) takes Nevelson's idea of monolithic and abstract and toggles them; at a distance, the seashells resemble grape clusters hanging through Baroque renderings of mythical beings. Yet placing those forms in the deliberately measured shelves lets us time-travel to the postmodern, present day, where precision may be valued over phantasmagoric, and unwanted, constricting deadlines obscure the openness of our dreams.

The pair of Claude Glass Cube pieces (both are glass, paper and wood; 36 x 36 x 36; 2014) are cube-like terrariums, filled with black paper flowers and leaves. Like The Order of Things, Fensterstock's approach borders on surgical: perfectly cut and arranged materials, in even more blackness.

The work of Booker (b. 1953) is a bridge between Nevelson and Fensterstock, both generationally and aesthetically. Like Nevelson, Booker uses an urban, 20th-century object: rubber tires. And like Fensterstock, she has a more classicist-quality to her work; albeit a classicist of a parallel world. A snake-like figure of Urban Townie (rubber, tires, metal, wood; 48 x 48 x 36; 2001) writhes, shedding skin that blooms into a jagged flower. India Blue (rubber tires, wood; 73 x 43 x 38; 2001) has a similar obsidian form, appearing almost frozen, holding its breath, pausing before it slithers down a white pedestal. Echoes in Black: Industrial Cicatrization (rubber tires, wood, steel; 96 x 252 x 4; 1996) is large-scale relief showing what looks like an ongoing sequence of rubber tires bent, folded and jutting outward. Oddly, Booker's works draw comparison to those of one who may be considered a disparate artist to her actual style: H.R. Giger. While Giger (1940-2014) is best known as the neo-surrealist creator of the Alien monsters, Booker's almost-menacing beings and forms draw similarities to Giger's "biomechanical" ideas of life cycles beginning, ending, evolving and mutating.

Three out of four ain't bad.

When I first saw Kate Gilmore's 2018 piece, It Needs Louise, I was standing between the Nevelson and Fensterstock section of the exhibit. Turning to the right, my first thought was, "Why in the hell is MOCA renovating that space now?" Whether this is a total misunderstanding of contemporary art, my undeniable hillbilly DNA, or a combination of both, is up to the reader. I do know this: Gilmore and her Louise trade in the legacy of Nevelson for the ever-coy "Emperor's New Clothes School of Visual Art." Planks of untreated lumber are in a grid on the wall. Ends splattered with yellow and blue paint, they hang suspended over four stacks of lumber, surfaces speckled with dried paint drips and what appear to be handprints or footprints. An accompanying video shows Gilmore (b. 1975) creating the piece while a second video, Rock, Hard, Place (color, sound; 11 min., 15 sec.; 2012), shows Gilmore applying hot-pink paint to a large, black, wood grid filled with bowls.

Nevelson's influence on Gilmore is evident—black grids, working in one or limited materials, etc.—but instead of precise, engaging and emotional works of Nevelson, Booker and Fensterstock, Gilmore's featured work seems forced and contrived. It Needs Louise feels more blatant than anything else ("I am evolving the vision of Louise Nevelson...") and the video views like an infomercial or webinar on "How to Be a Contemporary Artist in the 21st Century." I'll pass on the education.

All in all, A Dark Place of Dreams is a great success and MOCA curator Jaime DeSimone, who also wrote a commendable essay about Nevelson in the show catalog, should be applauded for creating a challenging exhibit as she ends her time at the museum. The show highlights an artist's enigmatic work and legacy, in turn highlighting the artists she inspired, even if one of them may have taken a step back into the shadows.

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