Strange Journey: Sticks and Stones at Heights Arts
Near infinite repetitions of rock-chipping and reed-plaiting, balancing and propping, burning and marking continue to inflect our “modern” lives: people know instinctively what to do with sticks and stones (apart from hitting one another on the head). Every human child puttering around a campsite piles up a wall, or draws with a burnt stick.
One of the most powerful things about art is its ability to tap into those layered traces of our collective past on Earth. Unsurprisingly, when gallerist and curator Bill Schubert suggested to seven professional artists living in northern Ohio that they make artworks reacting just to the title “Sticks and Stones,” they were off and running. Noteworthy is the fact that Schubert himself hasn’t always dealt with arts “professionals,” artists with university degrees, exhibition track records and jobs in the field. He’s one of the few Cleveland curators to consistently explore the boundary regions of fine art, beginning in the 1990’s with his Larchmere Road gallery “Headfooters.” Schubert regularly presented memorable regional and national shows of so-called “outsider” art in that space, including exhibits of paintings by well-known Cleveland figures like the Reverend Albert Wagner and Michelangelo Lovelace, and the German artist Alexandra Huber, among dozens of others. Self-taught artists (perhaps in common with all strongly motivated makers of fine art objects) use the force of their own convictions to rebuild a world of private imagery, using newly shaped, keenly personal tools of color and formal invention. The exhibition now on view at Heights Arts Gallery has a similar feel to those outsider exhibitions, at least in that it combines personal reflections and responses with non-fine art materials, techniques, and perspectives. The artists at “Sticks and Stones” use photography, metal-working, casting, and drawing or painting techniques, working mainly with natural materials (but also copper rods and glass vials), to evoke meditative and scientific perspectives influenced by conceptual or even arte povera precedents. It’s a thoughtful show that doesn’t reveal its strengths to the casual glance, requiring some serious looking.
Andy Curlowe is an accomplished abstract/figural/landscape painter who grew up in the Mohawk River valley near Schenectady, NY. He now lives in Cleveland Heights, and geography is significant here, because at “Sticks and Stones” Curlowe participates in part of the ecology of the neighborhood that the Heights Art organization was founded to serve. He and his wife Laura Skehan, who teaches art at nearby Cleveland Heights High School, collect and burn locally grown and harvested trees to supplement their heating system. Curlowe saved the ashes from their many home fires and made a number of faux logs (titled “Petrified Wood”) cast from these ashes mixed with cement (the gray, wood-textured “logs” are being sold from the show to fund a CH High School internship). He also made delicate drawings using acrylic, pencil, and ash on paper, including a study titled “Under Three Locust Trees,” where shadows and transient forms spill across underlying geometrical shapes.
Ryan Dewey’s approach to materials embraces further utilitarian and scientific perspectives. Dewey’s cross-disciplinary works have been widely exhibited, from Cleveland’s SPACES to his current residency at the Alps Art Academy in Switzerland, plus a number of other national and international venues. The various objects he made for Heights Art run a gamut of ideas, derived especially from psychology, chemistry, and geology (Dewey’s concerns have also touched on systems engineering, archeology, geography, and much else, crossing back and forth to humanities and the arts more generally). On this occasion his contributions are a cross between minimalist sculpture and wittily didactic, science-grounded exercises. In “Permanence/ Impermanence,” for instance, Dewey uses a piece of copper rod to hitch a piece of cedar wood to a a chip of actual petrified wood. Visitors are encouraged to grasp the object by its copper rod and experience first-hand (so to speak) the process of petrifaction, as their body completes a circuit between the substances. “Seeds for Stones” looks even more like a science experiment or a shelf in a chemistry lab. On a pedestal Dewey presents a row of glass vials, each containing the stuff of sedimentary stones. After adding distilled water, all you have to do is, as the label states, “seal the vials and leave to sit for approximately 10,000 years.”
Just as deeply concerned with natural structures and processes, and also committed to mystical and aesthetic values, are the intriguing sculptures of Cleveland sculptor Olga Ziemska. Known for large-scale public art projects, Ziemska brings a moderate size oval map of the world and its continents to “Sticks and Stones.” Made from reclaimed wood, the eye-shaped “Unicellular” is surrounded with an irregular fringe that might be either eyelashes or cilia. Earth’s oceans are composed of round cross sections of tree branches of many different sizes, like bubbles or developing cells. Ziemska’s work imagines our planet as a single, growing organism, a cosmic cytoplasm.
The upper reaches of the gallery are partly colonized by a graceful, mobile-like airborne sculpture, perched just under the heating ducts. The work of Jeanette Ho (another Ohio-based artist with multiple academic degrees), “Spirit Vessel for Happiness, Bliss, and Joy is made from Hemlock wood and bark, handmade milkweed paper, peacock ore (a bluish-purple healing crystal), and methyl cellulose (as a glue or binder). It looks a bit like a partial wing, molted by a backwoods angel, Or it could be a snare, for catching light and birdcalls, and the rising scents of the deep forests that once grew here. Another lovely, fey object is Ho’s “For Contemplations in the Birch Grove / a book of hours.” Made from birch bark and twiggy catkins (from pussy willows), the work also includes handmade milkweed paper and waxed linen, arranged in small rectangular pages that fan out like the pages of a book. The catkins branch up from the “spine” of this faerie-like text, and the whole object (less than a foot tall) could also almost be a crooked vase, sharply delineated and at the same time smudged, like a sumi ink drawing.
Less poetic, or going for a different kind of poetic effect, are Chesterland, OH artist Freeland Southard’s two “Halite Tables,” sturdily constructed from stainless steel, brass, ash wood, and one large chunk of halite apiece. These tripod-like structures are several feet tall and, although Southward makes furniture, clearly aren’t intended for use as tables. The small boulders of rock salt just unevenly up around the circular collar or bracket that supports them, like uncut gemstones. Each seems like white fire culled from the earth, bounded by forged metals like a thing in chains.
The show’s indispensible catalog notes describe Cleveland Institute of Art professor Kevin Kautenburger as “a maker, a beekeeper, self-trained naturalist, and dreamer of botanical life.” His most striking piece here is “Descent,” a semi-conceptual depiction of the part of the Rocky River near his home in Berea Falls. His shaggy grid, measuring around two by ten feet, is set upright like a ladder or a narrow trellis, slanting against a narrow temporary wall. Made from native cherry and shale, its broken pattern and uneven textures intend more than anything to illustrate the sound of falling – the rush of water over stone, and also the crescendo and slow fade of trains as they pass through the Berea Falls area.
Photograms by Cleveland photographer and gallerist Steven Mastroianni add an important dimension to the show, in many ways summing up the central issues and interests of these seven artists. Mastroianni writes, “The sticks and stones are shadows of themselves, reversed in the process of exposure and development.” This is because photograms are made by placing objects directly on photo-sensitive paper, then exposing them to light. The process is often referred to as camera-less photography, and artists often proceed in stages with several exposures to create layers of imagery. Mastroinanni’s examples, titled “Roll,” “Rock,” “March,” and “Cold Snap,” look like phosphorescent trails, or they could be constellations, flaring against deep darkness. The marks we see are actual light-imprints of little sticks and stones. Mastroianni’s tachistic trails evoke age-old traditions of trace-leaving and mark-making, but considered from a larger perspective, they’re also about the impossible flare of identity as it burns against the darkness of time, about the strangeness of our journey.