Nature’s duality: Sirvet’s structure, Katrina’s ruin

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

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photos courtesy of the artists
Sirvet’s ‘‘Enlightened” (above) evokes organic form while maintaining an abstract aesthetic.

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Waters’ title ‘‘Katrina Katastrophe Kollage” alludes to the enormity of the tragedy for African Americans through reference to the KKK.

Two exhibits on view this month — Michael Enn Sirvet at the BlackRock Center in Germantown, and works by 23 artists from New Orleans at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring — are equally about the awesome power of nature, both in its ordered and chaotic aspects.

The sculpture of Michael Sirvet, a trained industrial designer and engineer, seeks to reveal the beauty inherent in natural order, the latent mathematical equations and sequences that unite all natural structures. These concerns are clearly evident in the works now in the light-filled space at BlackRock.

Extending ideas first seen two years ago at a Glenview Mansion exhibit, Sirvet’s new work is more extensively organic in form, and less industrial. Nevertheless, the insistence on polished natural materials and perfect craft seen in his earlier work continues to be prominent. Two objects from that exhibit are here. ‘‘Cherry Wall” features identical rectangular wood segments rising up in delicately shifting numbers, while ‘‘Birch Wall” begins the same way, but ends in a juggling of the placement of the forms to create an organic finale. The new ‘‘Enlightened” picks up where ‘‘Birch Wall” ends. An imposing 7-foot-8-inches high and 4-foot-6-inches wide, the gleaming wood segments create a tree-like form that also might suggest a flame. The title expresses the idea of physical illumination, as well as the spiritual transformation the artist has felt in recent months while working on these sculptures — as though connecting to something larger than himself through them. This idea, although sounding rather lofty, is actually something tangible in the presence of this work.

The large tower or tree-like form in the center of the gallery also may be read as a robe encircling an invisible figure. ‘‘Elder” is made of rusted steel, cut with a plasma torch into segments bolted together with large stainless screws, their heads shining against the dark metal. Sirvet uses these screws in all his pieces; they are a signature element that adds to the works’ hand-built feeling. The 5-by-10-foot wall piece ‘‘Forest Density,” made of aluminum, bronze and copper, may be read as an abstract landscape reminiscent of the work of early 20th century American visionary painter Augustus Vincent Tack. About a century ago, Tack was looking for a way to incorporate abstraction into landscape, often making huge murals that evoke western deserts and the like. Sirvet admits gravitating toward the evocation of landscape in his work, thus connecting it to the much larger tradition of American landscape art. Renewed in the 20th century in the work of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, the landscape aesthetic continues to be a force in American painting, and in this case, sculpture, to the present day.

‘‘Art from the Gulf: Reflections on Katrina,” curated by Steve Prince (New Orleans native, Virginia resident), looks at the vast destruction those same natural systems can create. Participating are 23 New Orleans artists, many of whom are now displaced, having lost their studios as well as their homes to last year’s storms. Pyramid Atlantic gave each artist some paper, handmade by Amanda Degener from the wood of an ancient tree, the Wye Oak, which was felled in Maryland during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The artists were asked to create works that supplied a ‘‘candid look” at the destruction Katrina and Rita wrought in the Gulf region, and moreover, ‘‘explored the relation of this to the threat of global warming.”

Unfortunately, the work does not, overall, rise to this challenge. Perhaps the idea was too abstract. Perhaps there was too much emotion; this is the first work many of the artists have made in many months. In any case, the works in this exhibit have a consistently naive look, what you might expect from high school students asked to make work that expresses their feelings about something important to them. Whether this was intentional or not, the effect is disconcerting. There is also a strange lack of anger here, or of anguish. Kids are usually very close to their emotions, and that’s what separates this work from theirs. It’s neither sophisticated in the way one might have hoped, nor generally, naive enough to move.

This is not to say that there’s nothing of interest. Probably the most compelling work in the exhibit is Raine Bedsole’s ‘‘Untitled” sculpture. Projecting from the wall, two dark brown wax hands hold a small boat made of paper over a steel armature that speaks volumes about the storm experience in a way few of the other works do. Also interesting is Rashida Ferdinand’s ‘‘We Overcome,” a handwritten letter on paint-soaked paper. Eric Water’s digital photomontage ‘‘Katrina Katastrophe Kollage,” featuring images of broken instruments, manages to convey a real sense of sadness and loss. Steve Prince’s contribution, the ‘‘Second Line” drawings and his ‘‘Katrina Dirge” refer to traditional African American New Orleans funerals, where the ‘‘second line” is a dancing, hopeful one. These connote some sense of the ambiguous feelings about the storms and their aftermath that one would have hoped to see more of here.

Channel Guice’s collage ‘‘Putting the Pieces Back Together” is similar. A text over laced together pieces of paper closes with: ‘‘My New Orleans. Proud to call it Home. Ain’t no home for me no more cause New Orleans is now no more...” If more of the work were of this quality, the exhibit might have begun to address the issues Prince raised at the outset.