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MidCoast Show Invokes the Industrial Past PDF Print E-mail
Art - Reviews
Tuesday, 25 January 2005 18:00
As I walked into MidCoast Gallery West in downtown Rock Island, I was immediately transported back in time to my grandfather’s garage in upstate New York. The image was complete, from the old dusty equipment whose purpose and use were a mystery, to the used license plates adorning the walls where the grimy pegboard paneling didn’t quite cover. We have Matt Moyer’s ceramic sculptures to thank for the mysterious equipment, and Terry Rathje’s mixed-media wall hangings to thank for the ambience.

Matt Moyer’s choice of unpainted steel and wood-fired stoneware brings the finish of his sculptures into the palette of earth tones favoring tan, umber, and gray. These colors give his sculptures the impression of age and found objects, regardless of how recently they were fabricated. Moyer writes, in his artist’s statement: “The examination of artifacts and implements from our past is the driving force behind my sculpture. My interest in industrial artifacts is the focus of this exhibition, and originates with my family having worked in the pipefitting union for three generations, including my own. The longevity of industry, and its ability to change, adapt, and mold itself to an ever-evolving society intrigues me.

“The industrial artifacts that I find most interesting are those where a specific utility is not immediately apparent but rather slow to reveal itself. A sense of history, through layers of pealed paint, or the patterns of rust caused from an existence in a caustic environment, reveals a great deal about not only the object but the people who used it, or worked in proximity to it.”

It is not often that an artist captures in words, and writing, the essence of his or her work. In this case, Moyer’s goal is well executed in the resulting sculptures. They look old. They look like industrial artifacts. Their utility, as a small part of some massive industrial scheme to make a product in vast quantities, is undoubted, yet the specific role played by the part is somewhat obscure. This leaves the viewer the freedom to speculate upon the use. Moyer encourages a wide range of speculation on use by naming the sculptures One, Two, Three, Four … through the last sculpture listed: Twenty.

Most of Moyer’s pieces are hand built from slabs or casted forms, while a few combine wheel-thrown objects. His Pollock-like use of clay slips and glazes creates varied patinas and weathered patterns that denote usage and age and are serious homages to rust and grime. Likewise, the various nicks, cutaways, dents, and scratchings create surfaces and edges that emote industrial energy around the works.

Moyer’s work is reasonably priced, from $100 to a high of $400, with most pieces being $200 or less.

Terry Rathje’s work in this show includes three-dimensional sculpture and multimedia works (including The Way I Think I Think) using conventional tools such as colored prints. But the bulk of his art here is two-dimensional automobile license-plate collages. These range from using the plates to create a representational picture to cutting apart the letters found on license plates to create a verbal message. These license-plate billboards also incorporate as backgrounds antique tins from products such as lard and motor oil and feature political commentaries and pithy sayings, such as “Even in the driest hole one can sometimes find water” and “Everywhere foxes are guarding chicken coops.”

In his work Opiate, the individually assembled license-plate letters spell out the message: “What is the opiate of the masses now?” I liked the creative use of the number “2” to fashion a question mark in this work, but for me, art is about showing me and making me feel, not telling me. It is incumbent upon the artist to use the medium to evoke the emotions and feelings he or she wishes to communicate to the viewer; although these message collages are detailed and finished well, they are dominated by the deliberately provocative spelled-out messages.

Rathje transcends the license-plate medium in Photoscenic, which was the slogan on the New Hampshire plate in 1963. A portion of this vintage plate is incorporated into this landscape of multicolored tin. Here, Rathje breaks away from the geometric cuts and assemblage of his pedantic “slogan” pieces and explores a very organic rhythm to his tin-snipping. From a distance there is a series of clouds, and trees floating in the foreground, backed by a mountain landscape. Up close one realizes these are tufts of grass growth in a desert teeming with Saguaro cacti. Here Rathje is most successful at creating a compelling mosiac from disparate assembled items.

In some ways, Rathje’s works might be evocative for viewers in the same way quilts can be. For example, specific license plates can spur recollections of trips or events in the viewer’s own life.

What’s difficult to tell is what the plates mean to the artist, because the compositions in this show generally don’t give us much information.

We get close to evoking feelings in Suspect Dogma. Rathje uses a shrine-like frame with letters, made from license plates, cutting across the shrine spelling out the words “Suspect Dogma.” There is a cross at the apex of the topmost arch of the frame, providing a context through which we can infer meaning related to dogma and Christianity.

In his artist’s statement, Rathje says he is out to rearrange reality, and in his second-place-winning photo collage from the 2002 Rock Island Fine Arts Exhibition, Cubus, it is clear that he achieved this goal.

Both artists have a hard-edged industrial feel to their work, and both artists’ work builds on the grittiness of their materials and themes. In previous shows, I have seen Rathje’s work interspaced with cleaner, polished pieces. In these settings his work stands out. In juxtaposition with Moyer’s art, however, the viewer will get the full force of an industrial experience from both artists.

In this electronic age, with pristine, clean working environments, this show evokes the history from which factories arose.
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