Ebb and Flow
By David Francis, Museum of Glass Curator
As a landscape, the Pacific Northwest conveys an overwhelming sense of place, with major geographical features occupying the horizon in close proximity: mountains, volcanoes, lowlands, forests, lakes, rivers, moraines and a comparatively calm inland sea all contribute to a region that is widely celebrated for its natural wonders.
Esquimalt Harbor, from summit of “Mill Mountain.”
The entrance to Haro and Rosario Straits is in the distance;
1857 - 1862, James Madison Alden, Artist
Coastal Alchemy, on view at Museum of Glass through the end of 2014, captures and distills this ancient understanding of the spirit of a particular location, which the Romans called the genius loci.
Engraving of a Roman genius loci from Charles Mills Gayley
The Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art
(Boston: Ginn and Company, 1893) 62
Courtesy the private collection of Roy Winkelman
With lead artist Anna Skibska creating glass collages and sculptures, Meg Holgate contributing her luminous landscape paintings and poet T.s. Flock’s visual poetry, Coastal Alchemy offers visitors three different, but interwoven, perspectives on the region. Central to their collaboration is a sense of being on the edge, on the margin of the continent, between land and sea, surrounded by nature. A similar affinity for the sense of place in the Northwest characterized the so-called Northwest Mystics of the Northwest School in the 1940s and 50s; and for thousands of years before that, Native artists in this landscape created such distinctive art forms that they are recognized internationally. Mining this deep, metaphorical ground, the trio investigates a kind of liminal existence that accompanies living in the Northwest.
Alchemy, the precursor to science that developed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, is also strongly evoked, implying that this life on the edge brings with it a transformative power, a combining of rare elements to create a new substance, elixir or form of matter capable of (among other powers) transmuting base metal to gold with a simple touch: the philosopher’s stone. (The connection between alchemy and glass has recently received greater scrutiny since Glass of the Alchemists, the 2008–09 exhibition on alchemy and glass in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at the Corning Museum, New York.)
Glassmortar and pestle.
Probably Amsterdam, 17th century.
The Corning Museum of Glass (2006.3.78)
Gift of The Wunsch Foundation Inc.
For Skibska, edges are especially significant: originally from the western edge of Poland (part of Germany for a while), she was trained in part by the famous Polish artist Eugene Getem-Stankiewicz. As Paul Stankard, writing in Glass (131, Summer 2013, 24 – 31) explains, the young artist asked her professor what would happen if someone “forbid (her) to draw on either side of the paper,” to which he replied, “You have four edges. Each of them is small, but imagine a million such edges: this is the space for you - because everyone can see it, so it is invisible.” (quotes are translated from a different source)
Beach-combing Cannon Beach
The first object in the exhibition also serves to anchor it and foreshadow key elements in the rest of the gallery: from a distance, it hardly appears like an object at all, but rather an installation of various elements. Hundreds of silvery, reflective wires hang down from the ceiling about 12 feet to suspend a series of approximately 120 cadenza sheets above the floor.
T.S. Flock, Cannon Beach, 2014
T.S. Flock, Cannon Beach (detail), 2014
Photo by David Francis
Upon closer inspection, the sheets reveal meticulously handwritten lines of poetry. Thwarting any preconceived ideas of how a poem is usually presented (on a page, in a book or read aloud), the overall effect of the piece is to place us in a virtual landscape as it were: the projection that shines through the curtain of wires reminds anyone who’s been to the Northwest coast of a sea stack, with the shining wires reminiscent of a downpour. Cannon Beach, as the poem is titled, is not just “about” the sense of place, it is the place itself, with a life-like scale and we’re standing on the beach, watching the waves (the white sheets of poetry) as the moon rises in the spreading darkness (hence the black walls of the exhibition). In some ways, we never leave this coastal scene – Holgate’s landscapes, with their extremely subtle horizons, bring us back to the beach, where wave-tumbled stones line the shore.
Writing about Holgate in 2012 for The Seattle Times, art reviewer Michael Upchurch celebrated the painter’s “counterintuitive infusions of…lime-green into a sandy beach…not (the) colors you'd see in nature, but …(nevertheless) compositionally right. Indeed, the way they stretch what's credible or "natural" immerses you all the more vigorously in what you're seeing.” Three Rocks is a prime example, especially of that “lime-green,” hyper-natural color:
Meg Holgate (American, born 1955)
Three Rocks, 2013
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of the artist.
Holgate, like Skibska, realizes that the energy of a landscape does not necessarily reside in portrayals of its realistic details. According to her website, “the use of simple shapes, strong contrasts, layered application and limited palette gives her work an organic, ethereal quality that can be diffuse, glass-like, and sculptural. In her blurred soft tones, she alludes to what is hidden, subtle, to the silence of things yet to be revealed.” Inspired by Skibska’s unorthodox use of glass (on the edge of the Studio Glass movement), Holgate works with glass collage for the first time, simplifying her approach a step further with pieces that sometimes consist of glass panes and two or three pieces of black paper.
The strong verticals and horizontals seen in Cannon Beach continue to exert an influence throughout the exhibition, as both Holgate and Skibska explore narrow forms like lodgepole pines (Holgate’s Trees); a walking stick (the thin glass rod below La Skibska is Admiring Coastal Flora); flowers (the floral specimens that La Skibska gathers); rain (La Skibska in the Rain); as well as wide forms: the horizon in Holgate’s Green Fields, Beach, Three Rocks, and Moonshine 3; the glass title-labels in the story of La Skibska, as well as the stunning Vortex, over nine feet long; (gaze inside to see one of the many possible philosopher’s stones).
Anna Skibska; Vortex, 2013
Like Holgate and Skibska (2011, 2012), Skibska and Flock have collaborated previously: Flock has written wonderfully about Skibska’s work. The trio shared an interest in experimentation and risk-taking that encouraged Skibska to bring them together in a museum setting.
Calisthenics of Collaboration
Correspondences among them abound: the moon appears frequently, in Flock’s Cannon Beach and again in Holgate’s paintings Moonshine 3 and 4 (shown below), wonderfully abstracted as a type of intensely luminous line floating above the water, as well as in several of Skibska’s pieces: a crescent-shaped black shard in La Skibska with a Little Snort and a small silver orb hovering behind the sculptural glass in Oysterville, Oysterville, Oysterville, in addition to the hole in the gallery wall that normally functions as a conduit for a smoke-detection beam, but under the spell of the alchemical power of the exhibition is now transformed into another moon.
Meg Holgate; Moonshine 4, 2013
Anna Skibska; La Skibska with a Little Snort, 2013
Skibska; Oysterville...(detail), 2013
In addition to its visual dynamics, the text of the poem also captures essential aspects of the rest of Coastal Alchemy, especially the insistent feeling that time and place are often hard to pinpoint:
…This place was not at first
Cannon Beach. Its name resembled another
nearby place, and so to mitigate the bother
of misdirected letters, it was changed and hence
Cannon Beach it has been—for better or for worse.
(lines 100 – 104)
Place names, as these lines suggest, are prone to shift almost arbitrarily in the long course of history, and the ensuing narrative of La Skibska (an alter-ego or mask for the artist) alludes to a similar uncertainty in terms of self: the external persona walks through the landscape, both ‘me’ and ‘not me,’ gathering flowers (Coastal Flora, Vitrified 2 and again with Morning Glory, Tea Plant), visiting a friend (La Skibska Knock, The Light is On) or walking the dog in the rain (Bubu, La Skibska on a Stroll).
Interestingly enough, the first-person / third person shift embodied by the La Skibska persona bears a strong resemblance to some of art critic Charles Green’s writing on artistic collaboration. In a section titled “Reformation of the Self” (from The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, U Minnesota P, 2001), he mentions that “(f)rom the late 1960s onward, artists moved away from modernist definitions of art and artistic work. At the same time, artistic collaborations moved toward identities that could be constructed, fictional, disguised, or absent.” (199)
Collaboration, in other words, affords a prime opportunity to experiment with constructions of masks, or assumed identities (like La Skibska) that in turn allow artists a greater amount of freedom, perhaps, or license to explore new directions through the lens of others and otherness. For Green, this leads to a dialectic between “disclosure,” and a “withholding of the self” (ibid.).
For Any of Us
The La Skibska persona, which debuted in exhibition form in May 2013 as part of the Murano Museum of Glass’s 2013 Venice Biennale offering, is greatly expanded for Coastal Alchemy with the addition of actual activities. If the Murano show can be considered the first installment of the La Skibska chronicle, with titles like This American Bulldog is Sleeping on the Job or Art in the Face of Economic Crisis, then Coastal Alchemy represents what happens after the economic crisis: the bulldog is back, still sleeping, but engaged in floral collection, engaged in a walk. La Skibska, in short, is back in black, and gainfully employed as an art reviewer and socialite.
The narrative sequence offered in the current exhibition is also highly reminiscent of a storyboard. Recalling that Skibska has worked in film (The Tower, 1999), it’s possible to read her work as a series of frames, almost as a kind of book in which the edges of the pages run together. Combing two- and three-dimensional media in the same visual space, she disrupts our expectations for the borders between artworks: is this line between pieces part of the work, or? Even the customary exhibition labels have been appropriated for artistic purposes: Skibska has turned them into collages as well.
In addition to the visual work of an artist, the written material is often invaluable in providing a context. Certainly this is true of Skibska, who 15 years ago described her overall effort in these terms:
As a whole I look for balance between mythology and life…between biblical stories and the natural and present world. In reading about creation, from a biblical perspective, I found a legend about an unfinished world and unfinished creation. I thought I could work on pieces for a long time – yet leave them unfinished and express the notion of being inside a process where additions are possible. In a sense, if there are seven days of creation, I see these works as happening on the sixth day – and part of the process of creation. Nothing is finished yet. For any of us.
How to express the mystery and moment of creation? The chemistry? The egg? The puff, the first breath? The clearing of the clouds to reveal the eternal sky? The darkness pierced by a beam of light? I am not sure.
(1999, The Bullseye Connection Gallery Catalog)
It’s that fundamental uncertainty, that negative capability lying at the heart of Coastal Alchemy that will keep people coming back to the exhibition and to Museum of Glass.
Museum of Glass; Hall of Mirrors; Photo by David Francis
David Francis works primarily as an artist-curator with a practice informed by poetics, critical theory and archaeology (MFA, PhD, University of Washington). As an adjunct college professor for almost 20 years, he taught in Delaware, Washington, Kentucky, Poland (Fulbright), Semester at Sea, and Hungary (Fulbright), finally settling at Cornish College of the Arts from 1999 – 2006, when he began to focus on making visual art, joining Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) as an artist- curator in 2005 – 2013. From the mid-1980s until 2011, he also pursued a parallel career in archaeology, surveying, testing and excavating numerous sites in four states. In addition to more than 20 curatorial essays in exhibition catalogs, his publications include numerous technical reports, an award-winning collection of poems and a book on the indigenous Zoque region of Oaxaca, Mexico. He currently serves as curator at Museum of Glass, where he has curated six exhibitions since joining the staff in 2012.