Artists add another dimension to their work

Mar. 28, 2013 @ 04:54 PM

Object of Devotion:  Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum,” through May 26.

“O to 60:  The Experience of Time through Contemporary Art”, through Aug. 11. Both exhibits are at the N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh. Hours are Tuesday–Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-839-6262.

Traditionally time is not an element of the visual arts. The artists make the object and it is there exactly as it was created as long as it survives. Time, however, is basic to music and dance.  As the composition is played or the dance is performed, the first bar disappears into the second and third so that this form of art can only be understood in sequence, never all at once. 

In “0 to 60,” however, the artists include time as an element of their work, attempting to overturn a basic tenet of the visual arts.  Nothing could bring time into our consciousness as much as the exhibition which occupies the galleries just across the hall from “O to 60.”   “Object of Devotion” is an exhibition of alabaster Christian sculptures dating from the late 14th through the early 16th century. That they have survived for 700 years is a miracle.

The alabasters come from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and are visual stories of the Christian epoch, made for small churches and individual homes. Added to normal losses that occur over time was the deliberate destruction of such objects in England during the time of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI.  Spurred on by his desire for the annulment of his marriage, Henry outlawed the Catholic Church in England, which set into motion a period of iconoclasm and the wrecking of such images.    

David Steel, the N.C. Museum of Art’s curator of European art, walked the press through the gallery and told us the sculptures were painted when they were new and pointed out several pieces where lots of color is still visible.  They tell stories of the Passion and Resurrection, details of the life of Mary and several of the other saints, especially John the Baptist.  

These images were made in England by family workshops and, although there were other centers in Europe making this sort of art, the English craftsmen were highly respected and their work was exported throughout Europe.  In fact, most of these sculptures survived because they were not in England during the destruction dictated by the Reformation. 

One of the viewing delights of sculptures like these is identifying the iconography of the various stories. For example, there is Mary receiving three men, the Magi and Joseph leaning forward obviously exhausted.  There is a head on a plate and a tiny baby held up by angels and from the wall texts we learn this is John the Baptist and the baby represents his soul.   In a depiction of the Holy Trinity, we see God the Father as a king sitting under an intricate Gothic canopy.

The fragile sculptures are in dimly lit galleries to protect them from too much light; soft liturgical music surrounds the viewer and the effect can be an ethereal religious experience.

We cross the hall and 700 years and enter “O to 60,” a 21st-century joint exhibition by the N.C. Museum of Art and the Penland School of Crafts.  The 60 works by 32 artists, 11 associated with Penland, will be on exhibit at the Raleigh museum while four of the artists will create site-specific installations at Penland which will be on view through the end of summer.

These artists have been selected for this show because they have added movement to what might be just a static work of art, like Jim Campbell’s video “Digital Watch,” which is activated when a visitor comes into the view of the camera, or Hoss Haley’s “Drawing Machine” which only works when someone walks close by. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Perfect Lovers),” two clocks which were carefully synchronized on the first day but will move out of sync when the batteries individually wear down seems to tell the story of this show in a very succinct way. Co-curator Linda Daugherty walked the press through and said the clocks are a metaphor for lovers who begin in unison, then start to disagree, but can reunite just like the clocks when new batteries are installed.

One artist, David Shapiro, documents a part of a year with every receipt of every purchase he made during that time.  He, however, has meticulously copied them by hand on a vellum scroll and in so doing slows down the memory of each transaction.  In an area outside the main gallery, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is creating a monumental group portrait of visitors by having them register their fingerprints and heartbeats into a digital work.  The group portrait can include 10,952 people and when the number grows larger the first impressions will disappear to make room for newer ones.

There is Sonya Clark’s “Afro Abe (Progression),” 2008-12, where she has sewn different hairdos to Lincoln’s picture on a number of $5 bills.  On the first of seven, Lincoln’s hair is that of a typical male African-American; on the last one the president has a huge Afro adopted by young African-American black men in the 1960s.  Examples of objects that are time-consuming to make are David K. Chatt’s found articles covered in painstaking beading; Beth Lipman’s glass crockery set into and tumbling off a tiered table; and Do Ho Suh’s three-dimensional depiction of the last house he lived in down to every wall socket and door knob, all in meticulous stitchery and fabric.  The house, which the visitor may enter, can be folded into a suitcase ready for its next journey.

These artists have added the 4th dimension to their objects.  They have technology in their tool boxes we could not imagine just a few decades ago.  The ideas here sit at the threshold of the 21st century; as time moves ahead the possibilities seem endless.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.