When it really comes right down to it, our lives are simply about the arrangement of materials in space. Whether these arrangements culminate in skyscrapers or communities or the Milky Way galaxy, structure is the stuff from which the world is made. Structures permeate our built and natural environment in ways so obvious we cannot help but notice them, and in ways so subtle that we don’t see them at all. And artists interpret this idea of structure in creative, often eccentric and thought-provoking ways. The rotational exhibit entitled Structures, currently on display at Park Towne Place, a group of apartment buildings tucked away between the Schuylkill River, I-76, and the Parkway, runs with this theme of structures and examines it from several unique angles. Both emerging and established artists are highlighted in this exhibit, which spans three Park Towne Place buildings. The South Tower explores the idea of structures as Frame, whereas the North Tower explores structures as Shelter. The West Tower explores structures via the notion of Growth. Each of these three lenses through which to explore the theme add a creative perspective to a notion so ubiquitous, so tangible yet at the same time so potentially ephemeral, that we trip over it every second of our lives.
The West Tower, embracing the idea of structures as growth, features two artists: Brian David Dennis and Hanna Vogel. The viewer can’t help but be overwhelmed by the massive structure taking up most of the room in Brian David Dennis’ Arc. This enormous construction, fashioned by bamboo skewers, acrylic, glue and wire, seems reminiscent of a mythical creature, a loping, leaning, monstrous, octopus-like beast that might inhabit nightmares and horror flicks. Its fragile construction with skinny bamboo skewers contrasts the solid appearing, almost frighteningly massive presence. Interestingly, Dennis was brought up in a home with movable walls created by his aspiring artist father, and the fluidity of his home captured his imagination. Dennis’ work speaks loudly enough about organic, wall-like structures but the brilliant curatorial pairing in proximity to Hanna Vogel’s work illuminates the idea of growth. Vogel’s work, Traces, made of porcelain, slip, glaze, and string, and consisting of haphazard clumps of spiny organic looking matter, gives the appearance of small growths emanating from the large Arc piece. It almost seems to be a microcosm of the world of the larger piece, or organic fragments emanating from the larger work, such as offspring or balls of scales or fur. The title Traces, as defined by a small quantity or something revealed by investigation, seems to allude to the idea that these curious pieces may belong to something larger, more numerous, or of shady demeanor requiring investigation. And there is a sense of foreboding, of a shady, perhaps alien, unseen power hovering in the air of this room. These works, separately and especially together, create an electricity like that before a storm, as if they are evolving, emitting energy, or… dare I say, growing.
Another lens through which to view the concept of structures is to view it as a frame, the theme for the South Tower. Erica Ehrenbard’s large sculpture called Show Me the Moon in Your Eyes, made of welded steel and yarn, looks almost like an enormous metallic flower beginning to bud. In addition to running a metalworking company, Ehrenbard works as a researcher for Kieran Timberlake, where she builds architectural prototypes and leads fabrication projects, much in the theme of structures as frame. This particular work utilizes one material (steel) to frame another (yarn), two very different materials in terms of tensile strength, appearance, solidity, weight, and uses. The juxtaposition of these two vastly different materials whimsically captures the idea of an unexpected harmony between disparate parts, like the wide-ranging notes of a symphony. Similarly, Bill Brookover’ prints, situated in the South Tower, entitled Black Window #2 (relief print and collage) and Bounty’s Glow (dimensional print made from pressure print on Japanese paper, adhered to watercolor paper, cut out and layered over screen print collage), also allude to architectural structures. However, in this case he uses one type of paper technique to highlight another process, again intertwining seemingly incongruous processes to create a delicately beautiful whole. Like architectural frames utilizing the balance between steel and concrete on one hand, and delicate glass and filigree on the other, these works explore the unlikely marriage of clashing concepts and ideas. For both artists, the contrast between differing materials and techniques creates unusual, surprising works of art.
A walk along a path bordering a green lawn takes us to the North Tower, where the concept of structure is explored as shelter. Whether shelter is a safe haven, a frightening, insecure place, or a dilapidated, quirky, meandering edifice, each artist in this area expresses her own creative vision of shelter. Michelle Marcuse’s dilapidated cardboard dwellings, both on the wall and exhibited in cases, seems to capture the poverty and makeshift community of the artist’s youth in apartheid South Africa in the late 1950’s though the 1970’s. Her works display a variety of shelters, each created by a haphazard jumble of reused materials; crude staircases and improvised rooms and bare essentials populate these dilapidated homes. One work, entitled Liquid Edge (2017, mixed media, cardboard), has a small boat hanging from the bottom, perhaps emblematic of a dream to get away, or a needed outlet from the crushing despair of subjugation and poverty. Or perhaps these homes, despite their shabbiness, convey a sense of stability amid the political and personal tensions that exist outside the walls. Perhaps instead, they are the safe haven among the wreckage and erosion of a country, illustrative of a community holding the fort (however tenuously) despite societal collapse. And they are stunning and creative in their own right, perhaps capturing a slice of brightness in a very dark place.
Other works displayed in the North Tower convey additional perspectives on the idea of shelter. Terri Saulin’s delicately ornate wall plaque, enigmatically entitled In the Midst of Chaos There is Also Opportunity, created from porcelain, white oak and brass, captures the intangible, ephemeral aspects of structure and shelter. She states: “Memories are delicate constructions. They are a labyrinth, a vast and intricate novel that at once documents, interrupts and obfuscates, creating floating entry points and a universe of emotions in every corner.” The muted greenish and white colors, and the organic forms punctuated by sharp toothpick-like shapes can perhaps be seen as a shelter for memories or ideas, a construction where vessels hold and support our intimate thoughts. They are thoughts which both clog and adorn those surrounding vessels. Similarly, Saulin’s (also mysteriously titled) Juno was Adamant/ Dear Lee Bontecou, a sculpture made of Raku fired clay, moss, steel and concrete, conveys the notion of open, organic vessels. This time the shape seems reminiscent of barnacles (sheltering sea creatures or perhaps even submerged ideas) or of fragmented organs or blood vessels, providing structure through which bodily fluids flow. These works beg the question of whether these shelters are secure, a cozy gathering place for memories, emotions, and ideas, or whether those ideas and memories tend to fall through the cracks, clog openings, and ultimately lead to despair. The answer is possibly a function of the viewer of these works. This ambiguity of whether the vessel actually supports the emotional content, along with the unique visual representation of intangible structures, is part of what makes this work so powerful.
Libbie Soffer’s work, also in the North Tower, addresses another angle on the concept of construction as shelter. Her piece is composed of earthenware vessels and glued pages of books about women’s rights, with sheer silk gauze on top, entitled Anonymous Under Shelter. The flowing silk seems to allude to the notion of a burka hiding a woman’s true nature underneath, whether forcefully or voluntarily. It could just as easily apply to religion in general or general cultural expectations of women. It leads us to question whether anonymity, whether willingly created or prescribed by culture, is sheltering. Does anonymity create a shelter, or a prison, or perhaps an ambivalent zone of comfort, one that not only blurs true identity but constrains freedom? These works invite conversation and exploration about these themes.
Just as Soffer’s work grapples with the notion of shelter as not necessarily safe and secure, Hanna Vogel’s large egg like structures in close proximity to Soffer’s work in the North Tower, again play with the idea of insecure structures. Like a large egg that fails to nourish and support a growing embryo, these circular constructions have large swaths of holes in them. Pyre (Safety), a large construction of steel rods and wire, abaca and cotton paper pulp, pigment, rust, and sealant, seem to be an unlikely shelter, as there are wide openings throughout. A pyre is a combustible material, especially for burning a corpse as part of a funeral ceremony. There are dark colors, seemingly rust-like around it, which is so fitting given the title. Is it not rust but singes from fire? Maybe this structure is not so much for protection or growth or shelter, but for destruction? Perhaps what is meant to be sheltering can be constraining, can blur our identities, or lack essential stability; perhaps it can even hinder nurturing. Or perhaps, as can possibly be conveyed in Vogel’s pyre circles, shelter can even be outright destructive.
This rotational exhibit at Park Towne Place certainly examines a myriad of permutations around the theme of structure. It expands our notion of what structures can be made of and what they can mean to us. It also plays with the idea that structures always need to be concretely physical, existing only in the realm of our five senses and allows us to imagine that perhaps they can also reside in our minds. As such, these stunning works of art, grouped together in various themes related to the concept of structure, help us to see both the ground in front of us and the stuff inside of us in a new, creative light. And after all, illuminating our world and ourselves with a unique, innovative perspective is what art is all about.
Structures is on display at Park Towne Place through April 2020.