Lines and Shadows: Wilhelm & Mastroianni at CPR

Steve Mastroianni, Grimmwelt (detail), photogram, 2019, from Lines and Shadows

It’s true with voices in a duet, with food on a plate, and certainly in a two-person exhibit: When two things are presented together, the way they relate (or don’t) is a make-or-break factor. Cleveland Print Room makes good on this front with Rebekah Ann Wilhelm and Steven Mastroianni’s exhibit, Lines and Shadows, on view November 8 – 30.

The artists work very differently: Mastroianni fundamentally in abstraction, loosely inspired by landscapes, skies, and music, while Wilhelm’s abstractions are built on the symbolism of barriers and what they mean in terms of power: fences as barriers, language as barriers, who’s in, who’s out, who’s in control. Somehow, though, even beyond the commonality of photo-based works in black and white, the works speak to each other. For both artists, at least in this show, the ability of an object to make a characteristic line as it catches light or casts a shadow is central.

With one exception, you wouldn’t make a connection between themes or any content represented in their work. The exception is the juxtaposition of Mastroianni’s photogram Grimmwelt–an abstraction of lines, some of which are letters of the alphabet–with Wilhelm’s series of nine untitled prints made from fragments of chain link fence.

Installation view, left: Steve Mastroianni, Grimmwelt; right: Rebekah Wilhelm, untitled.

The jumble of letters in Mastroianni’s piece is unmistakable, but unburdened by any meaning on their own. They spell nothing. Some are backward, most are not upright. The title alludes to a museum in Germany dedicated to the work of the Brothers Grimm—story collectors whose work formed the basis of all those famous fairy tales. Mastroianni’s Grimmwelt is inspired specifically by an immersive installation at the Grimmwelt museum, which features video projection of cascading torrents of jumbled letters. The stories the Brothers Grimm gathered are much darker and more complicated than what most of our children read in the story books that evolved from them, of course. So viewed from that perspective, collection of letters tumbling in the darkness could refer to a teeming world of stories about a cold and dangerous world.

Meanwhile Wilhelm’s adjacent prints are easily recognized as bits of broken wire fence. Their curves and angles make that clear. But in their orientation and with the shadows they cast, and presented as a group in series, and of course juxtaposed with Mastroianni’s piece, they evoke some primitive alphabet, or runes: some kind of glyph that has the potential to convey meaning—if they were scattered right, if you knew how to read them.

Text and language, as well as fences, both treated as barriers, are running themes in Wilhelm’s work. Those fragments of chain link came from a fence along her walk to Bamboo Curtain Studio in Taipei, Thailand, where she was recently in residency as part of an exchange between Bamboo Curtain and Zygote Press. In Thailand, the term “language barrier” hit home, as she was usually the only person in the room who did not speak the local language. She said on opening night that the feeling of being the “other” was one of the most important things she took from the experience. Speaking of those bits of chain link, she says, “I found them to be an interesting conversation between my text work and the fence/barrier work that I am currently exploring. So I do think of them as text in a more abstracted way.”

Rebekah Wilhelm, Untitled, cut paper and ink, 2019

“I am interested in the translation or possible exchange of information, and the power dynamics between the author and viewer,” she said.

Rebekah Wilhelm, Untitled (detail) Silkscreen, 6 leaves in a folio, 2019

The idea plays out in another way in Wilhelm’s portfolio of velvety black screen prints, a series of six sheets which in succession accumulate lines of writing, one on top of the next, so that the first sheet is legible, but subsequent ones—while they retain the unmistakable characteristic of handwriting and contain more and more information—become less and less legible. They give up less and less as the lines accumulate. Like a fence, they don’t let you in, or they don’t let the writer’s voice out.  Wilhelm says the text is her own, a long-developing personal manifesto, “a response to life as an artist and maker in the culture that I am in.”

Rebekah Wilhelm, untitled, Screenprint, 6 leaves in a folio, 2019

Mastroianni’s works are fundamentally drawings that begin with objects and their inherent lines, as well as their capacity to make other lines when light is projected on them.

He says those began with the prompt for another exhibit. “When Bill Schubert approached me to do Sticks and Stones at Heights Arts last year, I originally had in mind actual photography of sticks and stones, like still life. But when he described what the exhibit was about, the proverbial light went on—instead of taking photos of sticks and stones, why not make photos of sticks and stones? Making photograms had been on a back burner for lack of inspiration, but all of a sudden I had a theme and materials to work with. So I went into the darkroom with piles of sticks and stones and other debris, and when I started laying it out on the photographic paper, I realized I was imitating the lines and marks I had been sketching the past few years. I was making marks with the materials instead of a pencil.”

Photograms by Steven Mastroianni, installation view. Left: Solder Flummox, 2019. Right: Swim/Spike, 2019.

He joked on opening night that it had become a game, to guess the objects used to make the lines in the new photograms. By looking through the works, it’s easy to identify alphabet pasta, masonry nails, solder wire, and flat washers.

Steven Mastroianni, O Eterno, photogram, 2019

In all of his works, the lines flow and evoke some particular kind of movement. Swim/Spike, made with masonry nails, flat washers, wire brads, perhaps pins, and flat washers, reads like a school of minnows among the reeds. O Eterno, which seems to have been made from star pasta and perhaps linguini, reads like the sky, with a multitude of sparks and stars above a bonfire. From a micro or macro perspective, both invite you to muse on life, the Universe, and everything.

It’s rewarding to spend time with Lines and Shadows, because both of the artists’ works  yield layers of meaning beyond the abstract elements that give the show its name. Props to Cleveland Print Room director Shari Wilkins for putting them together.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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