"In my nightmare, black ominous towers vibrating with negative energy, producing a very low and constant humming sound, surround a picturesque little cottage with a flower garden and a white picket fence. A little girl steps out of the cottage and into the garden, where she bends over to pick a daisy. I yell, 'Don't pick the flowers,' and then I awaken. I knew that the flower was the trigger that would detonate the black towers (nuclear missiles) surrounding her."
- excerpt from Harry Brown's artist statement
Don't Touch the Flowers is one of more than 20 missile/tower forms from Harry Brown's Trigger Points - a series of found-object constructions that represent a response to the troubling vision that percolated in his mind while growing up during the height of the Vietnam and Cold wars. The latest show at Quad City Arts is populated with works inspired by his recurring nightmare, along with collage work by Mary Snyder Behrens and Roy R. Behrens.
Brown has pieced together numerous commanding stalagmite-like sculptures loaded with texture and infused with a dark undercurrent of meaning frosted over with bold and almost straight-out-of-the-can colors. Brown's pieces are reminiscent of both the Merzbau work of German-born collage and installation artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) and the flat-black found-object boxes of Louise Nevelson (1900-1988).
Brown's ability to encourage multiple readings of the materials resonates excitingly in Dinner Party, constructed from sections of table legs, bowls, a small container with numerous handles jutting out, a curvaceous piano-bench leg, and an eye-like flare near the top.
What really makes these pieces work, though, is how the paint helps transform this collection of objects into a new reality by unifying all of the constituent materials. Dinner Party has a wonderfully thin coat of brassy-gold paint over a cadmium red base color, with some areas showing hints of purple. The multiple thin washes heighten the sense of surface texture with a slightly weathered look.
Most importantly, though, the transformation allows things such as chair legs and wooden thread spools to become towers, power transformers, and missiles. I've used a similar technique in some of my collage work to transform cigarette butts and plastic mesh into texture. In this technique, the paint obfuscates original functions and identities.
The underlying references to a surrealistic doomsday vision are still present in Brown's work, but they are not necessarily a limiting factor for interpretation. While the two stacks of side-by-side cylinders near the base visually "read" like ammunition in a clip, some of the wooden projections "read" as air-raid sirens or crowns or Russian Orthodox church façades or tribal sculptures to little-known deities.
The grouping of three works - The Creator, The Critic, and The Curator - fails to resonate with the same caliber of energy and interpretative flexibility because of their allegiance to the original surface tones. In lieu of a transforming coat of paint, Brown has attached newsprint snippets with words such as "arts," "exotic," and "the past" to some portions of the sculptures.
While the potential for text fragments to accentuate the incomplete and hazy nature of remembered dreamscapes is waiting to be tapped, this particular method of execution doesn't lead us anywhere. Both visually and conceptually, they remain unpainted groupings of wooden objects with newspaper attached to the surface. There is no transformation.
Mary Snyder Behrens' collage work manifests itself with two different visual sensibilities. In this exhibit, she has a series of eight "trammel boxes" in two groups of four, and then three larger works.
The trammel boxes are small -perhaps three-and-a-half inches long and two inches wide - and covered with a delicate profusion of tattered and stitched fabrics, twine, and occasionally wire. A trammel is something akin to a fine net or restraint - something that binds or hinders movement.
Trammel Box: Tatter VI is an unassuming box with a vigorously textured shell of pale earthy tones and slight patches of pink, black, and fabric with text bound by knotted string. The vibrant composition established by all of these collage materials is rivaled by the inherent mystery: What could be contained in the box that necessitates it being bound yet requires it to be done with such delicacy and sensitivity? While the mood, materials, and dynamic compositions change from one trammel box to the next, all maintain a high level of visual interest, and none betray their individual contents.
By comparison, Behrens' three larger collage works - in the neighborhood of four feet long and three feet wide and five inches deep - have a more calculated and bolder feel than the more organic and near-precious trammel boxes. The larger pieces have the flavor of Robert Rauchenberg, a prolific and adventurous American collage/multimedia artist (1925-).
Drawn Conclusion No. 13: Faith Is a Potent Opiate has a strong underlying tilted compositional grid that is reinforced by bits of lathe and string. A subdued dialogue is established between two metal hoops, which are partially wrapped in fabric, and a central ring formed by a black and white bull's eye peeking from behind a dingy-white - and partially burnt - draped piece of cloth.
The target is riddled with divots and, in many places, the surface is incised with lines and word fragments and phrases. Several elements within the piece are cut, burned, bound, and wrapped, suggesting restraint, discomfort, repression, and possibly torture. The physical depth of the piece allows it to be read as an actual "interior space," while the trammels focus on the façade and only allude to an interior reality. The more aggressive method of fabrication and the scale help to foster a disturbing undertone.
This dichotomy between the delicate and spontaneous trammel-box series and the much larger and aggressive compositions lends an intriguing co-dependency to each set of works. The trammel boxes would not have the same softer visual personality without their proximity to the larger works, and vice versa. This would not be apparent if they were shown independently, and each series would be lessened without the contributed visual power of its counterpart.
While Harry Brown's and Mary Snyder Behrens' collage works are laden with rich physical texture, Roy R. Behrens' 11 digital montages are illusionary.
All of his images are set into the surface of scanned pages of an open book. The edges of the pages and the cover echo the visual structure provided by the mat and the frame. The final product lies somewhere between an enhanced historical snapshot and visual journey of fantasy.
In Vignette with Splat, we are confronted by a bearded face - off-center and partially framed in an egg-shaped arc - calmly staring at us. The soft greens, diffused edges, and strange spatial interplays between forms generate a shallow, undulating space for these various elements to inhabit. Numerous visual volleys to lead the eye are established between the "face arc" and several circles and drip-like spots. The large and totally affected splat that slashes diagonally across the image is an appreciative nod to Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), whose brush-stroke and drip works were painted in response to the ubiquitous and sometimes contrived juicy and drip-laden Abstract Expressionistic works.
Harry Brown and Mary Snyder Behrens achieve compelling juxtapositions of images and materials that transcend their constituent materials to create a new and more powerful whole. Roy R. Behrens' digital montages, on the other hand, near a new reality of transformation but remain more of a collection of visual components awaiting transformation.
The show runs through August 11.