Shaping dissonance, painting scenes in flux

 

”Measured Rest” by Amy Podmore
”Measured Rest” by Amy Podmore

“My work has always been about the everyday, the culling of ideas gained from observing and interpreting the world.” Although these are the words of Amy Podmore, professor of art, they are equally relevant to both halves of her joint show with fellow art professor Mike Glier, which opened at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) last Thursday. In their exhibitions – “Predicaments” for Podmore, “Along a Long Line” for Glier – the two artists display recent additions to their bodies of work that reveal starkly contrasting worldviews and their attempts through visual media to express them.

 

In her works on display, which include four larger sculptures in various media, a combination video/still performance piece and a series of small figurines that give the show its name, Podmore walks a fine line between eccentricity and anguish. “I am intrigued by contradictions, acknowledging the fact that two opposing ideas can be entertained simultaneously,” she writes in her wall text. “I want my work to flip-flop between the absurd and the rational, the somber and the whimsical.”

Podmore’s work is at its best when she strikes an effective balance between the playful and the eerie. Measured Rest (2009), a mixed media sculpture, depicts a violinist, perched precariously on a ladder, whose head happens to be that of an oversized, maniacal rabbit. The overall effect is at first shocking and humorous, but spending more than a few seconds in front of this bunny-eared maestro is an unsettling experience. Podmore heightens the obvious contrast in subject matter with formal juxtapositions of material and scale, with the result a powerfully off-putting creation.

Other works reveal Podmore’s finely tuned aesthetic and mastery of various media despite her quirkier inclinations. In Cloud Teat (2002), a plaster-cast cluster of udders suspended from a rafter, the artist gives the biomorphic forms a lush sheen, which heightens the tactile nature of the piece. Similarly, in Untitled (2009), an enormous bronze pitcher with human legs, Podmore’s craftsmanship is on full display in the quality of surface and the way in which a sculpture of obvious weight seems somehow to be light and graceful. But therein lies the ultimate predicament that her work brings to light, in which aesthetic and often-conventional beauty competes with a less visible subversive agenda for supremacy.

Where Podmore fails to achieve this equilibrium is in Milk and Powder (2009), two photographs depicting performances, also documented in Disappearing Acts (2006), in which the artist dons smocks with pockets full of milk in the first, powder in the latter. As she spins, the substances spray outward in white spirals, never running out in the freeze-frame of the photos or the continuous loop of the video. While the media might in fact dilute some of their power, these works fail to live up to the standard Podmore has set for herself. The dizzying dances of milk and powder are fun and certainly whimsical, but rather than reaching toward any aesthetic or subversive ends the artist seems content leaving them in the realm of ambiguous frivolity.

Glier’s half of the show is actually the third stop for a series of paintings he debuted at the Gerald Peters Galleries in Santa Fe and New York earlier this year. The paintings, 50 in total, all oil on aluminum, represent the culmination of a year-long sojourn in which Glier traveled roughly along a longitudinal line to locations on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, San Cudo in Ecuador, St. John in the Virgin Islands and New York City. At each location, he painted landscapes en plein air, chronicling his exploits in a blog and thousands of photographs.

Glier envisioned the project as an effort to grapple first-hand with the most visible of ways in which humans are altering the natural environment. “Landscape is vital and human survival within its masses always in question, but more so because of accelerating environmental changes,” Glier writes in the introduction to Along a Long Line (Hard Press Editions, 2009), a book in which he combines his paintings, photos and journal-style entries into a holistic account of his year of travel and creation. “I hope this project creates more compassion for the living world and that this sensitivity translates into improved environmental policy.”
The book proves a nice accompaniment to the exhibition, and Glier’s descriptions of picking mosquitoes out of paint and night snorkeling make for entertaining narrative fodder. More interesting are the photos, many of which depict the artist’s plein-air process, but all of which are beautiful and provide a context in which to view his work.

In the paintings themselves, Glier’s utter immersion in the natural landscape is immediately apparent, and the factual titles of each work, such as “July 28, 2007: Clouds and Moss, Pangnirtung, Canada, 48ËšF,” do little justice to the drama and dynamism of many of them. Where he is the most successful is where his complete submission to the landscape forces him to reimagine the expressive means of capturing it. In his series from Haulover Bay on St. John, the paintings range from roughly figurative to entirely abstract, but in each case Glier’s violently expressive brushstrokes and vibrant palette evoke the sensory experience of the environment.
While less impressionistic, Glier’s series from New York is similarly evocative and arresting, bowing to the chaos of the city without completely abandoning a sense of order and structure.

Glier scores a great coup in his dramatic attempts at rendering the architecture of the city on the aluminum, building bricks and gateposts out of blocks of thick paint, adding another dimension, literal and figurative, to the intensely expressive quality of his works.

Glier’s works from tropical Ecuador seem to be outliers from the project. In this series, the artist falls back on more cliché modes of expression: the omnipresent mottled green, butterflies and palm fronds leave the viewer wondering, “Where have I seen this before?” whereas the others beg the more basic and interesting question of, “What am I looking at?”

In this way, then, the juxtaposition of Glier’s and Podmore’s works makes sense, as both artists present fundamentally unique ways of seeing and expressing. Although Glier’s focus is sprawling and Podmore’s is on the mundane, both artists have produced works that are at once beautiful and challenging.

Both “Predicaments” and “Along a Long Line” will be on view at WCMA until Feb. 21.