JERRY BIRCHFIELD: ASLEEP IN THE DUST AT THE AKRON ART MUSEUM
While FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art occupies other rooms at the Akron Art Museum, Clevelander Jerry Birchfield brings his multimedia, photo-based work to the Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Gallery through September 23.
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2)
“Dust” is a subtle word, which in the King James translation of Hebrew texts is synonymous with mortality. Short and blunt, it evokes sudden silence and shallow burial. Jerry Birchfield in the title of his show Asleep in the Dust brings to mind a well-known phrase from the book of Daniel, which describes the “sleep” of the dead prior to their final awakening on Judgment Day. But in the context of this exhibit, that apocalyptic vision serves as a distant (if titanic) backdrop to a very contemporary exploration of the nature of photography, and of artistic procedures more generally.
The dust referred to in Birchfield’s work is mainly the accumulation typical of an artist’s studio, inflected less by eschatology than by the slow physical facts of dissolution. His often photogram-like innovations, aiming at a condition midway between three and two dimensions, explore the atomization of all material objects and beings. They depict—even as they act out—the gradual, endless mist of once-and-future materiality that envelops the living world. Time seems to rain down on the fragmentary objects that Birchfield arranges and photographs, dissolving even the idea of form itself, while the ever-evolving chemical and digital processes of photography generate intricate, shadowy layers of visual clues and blind alleys.
Six untitled solarized selenium silver-toned gelatin prints from 2017 resemble the Victorian-era cameraless photograms that are photography’s experimental progenitors—the Adams and Eves of our own, vast, fallen visual world. Even more mysterious than these shadowy images is a 40-inch-by-30-inch print titled Sometimes All I Need Is the Air That I Breathe. The work consists (somehow) of an inkjet print, plaster, enamel paint, and graphite. But it looks more like wax, like encaustic—sensuous, almost fat, projecting a smoothly polished sense of physical volume. And while it could be an example of microphotography or even medical imaging deriving from heat or sound, it seems almost lyrical, like a watery post-impressionist nature study. Maybe that’s what suggested the Hollies’ super romantic song title to the artist. Its milky gray modulations are as soft as fur, and invent an unusual beauty, composed of touch and curiosity and caution.
Yes, They Were Made to Level brings the concerns and tensions that wink in and out of view in Birchfield’s wall-mounted works all the way out into the center of the available gallery space. Measuring maybe ten feet by ten feet, the constituent materials on its wall label read like a contractor’s wish list. PVC conduit, plastic, wood, Masonite, cardboard, metal, foam, Plexiglas, concrete, paint, flour, and arrows: Home Depot meets King Tut’s Tomb. It’s as if concepts of form and function are here gathered from the corners of western history, “whitened” with a liberal sprinkling of plaster of Paris and flour (playing the part of the dust of ages), and surrounded with a three-dimensional grid of Plexiglas and PVC. King Tut’s crowded underground storage facility is one comparison, but in any case, Birchfield’s work here speaks of excavation and perhaps even the uneasy vibe that haunts any disturbed burial site. The grid is a trope for scientific method as well as a formal device of late modern art forms. The bone-like whiteness and overall texture of the work describe the dead, but also modeling and creation in relation to the inchoate stuff of life (the gods in many traditions create human beings from available materials), while the random shapes and objects that Birchfield includes could be the accumulated contents of a cultural midden. On another associative front, Birchfield’s constructed cubes are clearly “Cubist” in intent. They mount an advancing program of deconstruction across the midden, like the initial girders of an emerging high-rise. Included in this dungheap/construction site are a Picasso-ish or Max Ernst-like totemic tower and a swooping boudoir screen, plus shapes that could be soup cans, and a medium-size cardboard box with metal screening. Birchfield’s “Yes, They Were Made to Level” is like crumbling evidence of an ironic history of Form, half-uncovered in the course of a post-apocalyptic investigation, displayed as if in situ, in all its messiness. Of course, these objects, these events in aesthetic progress now partly visible, might also be half-hidden, caught at a moment when history is being erased or otherwise betrayed.