October 24, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Milan Kundera was a brilliant mind openly infatuated with controversial, crude, naked emotion. Heaviness, he held, was the reality of being, and lightness, though what we strive for in a carefree interpretation of happiness, simply unbearable. The modern section of the Precious Paper exhibit feeds off this concept of weighty, tangible emotions lurking beneath facades of light, simple existence.

Confessions of the cluttered mind, quiet sensuality and innermost desires all swarm between the meticulous lines of graphite in the drawings of the Precious Paper exhibit presented by the Johnson Museum of Art in celebration of the opening of its newest wing. The collection features some of the most praised drawings acquired by the Johnson within the last 20 years. Though some works date back to the 1800s, most of the drawings seem to be crafted by contemporary American artists.

Upon walking into this section of the exhibit, the lines of the hardwood floor trickle to the point where an airborne paper stingray should be dripping remnants of its salt-water habitat. It is a delicate monster, with the wingspan of at least the height of an average person.  It is a mass of vaguely familiar paper figures, linked carefully by off-white strips, leaving a hazy image of its creator devotedly cutting each piece, one of several hundred, at a time. Upon further examination, some of these pristine white silhouettes are tainted by hues of teal, betraying the almost virginal white work to its true internal darkness. Hidden behind these white crochet doilies lurk the darkest of thoughts in the shape of Freudian slips of “destruction”, demonic boars and black medusas.

Mark Fox’s Untitled (Stingray) is a fragile yet massive, two-dimensional tangible tribute to the visceral darkness of the cluttered mind. Don’t stare too long or others may find you suspect of the same crime. The two-faced stingray materializes ideas swimming beneath facades of functionality, beauty and social acceptability. Some darkness seeps through the paper and betrays the dainty, alluring Aphrodite beauty of the white silhouettes masking the darkest of minds.

Now that Stingray has established a precedent of comfort in heaviness, the rest of the pieces begin to work in tandem to fearlessly poke and prod and nourish exploration of the mind’s various taboo areas.

George Copeland Ault’s Tree Trunks hands its viewers a pencil to unabashedly draw on a soft sensuality. He eases you into the picture with a frame in the foreground of basic geometric shapes, boring in their precision, enthralling in their slow seduction to the central focus of intimately intertwined tree trunks.  There is a raw sensual appeal, blush worthy of the eye that settles on it, in watching the curvatures of the trunks (strikingly reminiscent of the human body) embrace each other. The focal point’s resemblance to the human body is accurate down to the knobs and branches, blatantly suggestive of elbows and dimples and fingers caressing.

Moving beyond the rawness of the nude human form, the exhibit gently nudges one to the weight and power of human thought. With his watercolor Three Boys, Joe Hardesty hits the nail on the head, reminding us that the weight of ideas is induced by nothing but our minds. Hardesty’s terse simplicity tricks the mind into a long-winded analysis of the simple words painted at the center of his precious paper in black, grey, and rust, reading the following: “This drawing is of three teenage boys cooling off in / the water of a rust-stained river. One of the boys / has been hit with a rock and is bleeding from the temple. / The river water dilutes the crimson blood flowing / Down his face to murky pink dribble at his chin.”

The heaviness sits not in the delightfully simple watercolor of Hardesty’s words, but in the mind’s interpretation of them. Though Hardesty’s imprint of the word “crimson” is black and “blood” is the whisper of a faint grey, the bleakness of the picture is painted with the dark crimson image in our minds.

The lightest of the high-profile works in the exhibit seemed to be Russell Crotty’s Spanish Trails. An ink and watercolor on paper, mounted on a fiberglass sphere, suspended midair at eye level, a tad left of the center of the room. A mock-planet of sorts, the piece features grey and celeste pencil shadings for a sky and an earth of contour lines composed of words delineating those secret frivolous wishes to be dug up beneath our virtuous minds. The gravitational pull of the sphere calls on its prey to succumb to sinfully shallow pleasures with phrases like “you deserve it all” and “upper echelon features” and “Brazilian walnut floors.”

The craft of putting pencil to paper is art at its crudest and simplest. In most of the high profile pieces, color is used sparingly and contrast in abundance. The precious nature of these papers lies in the simple juxtaposition of light and dark, of light and heavy. Emotion, though complex, is a simple evocation natural to the mind, and these pieces tap into this human instinct, encouraging a vulnerability and openness to all those dark ideas sulking and skulking in the alleyways of our consciousness. The Stingray does not condemn the brooding nor the Spanish Trails the worldly. Rather, Precious Paper encourages the intense feeling of heavy emotion and the setting aside of the unbearable lightness of being.

Original Author: Sam Martinez