When I walked out of the new exhibit at the Durango Arts Center last week, I spun around in slow circles all the way to my car. No straight line, no hurried rush to the next chore on my to-do list. The installation, “Foreign Spaces,” slowed me down, reminded me of days pretending to be a dancer or playing in a sandbox.
That’s my story in a paragraph. The exhibit rekindled delight. Why? The odd assemblage triggered memory and catapulted me to a place somewhere between art and life.
The point of Sandra Butler and Joan Russell’s endeavor is to provide a provocative space for new experience. That’s what installations are all about. Nothing is for sale. Pretty landscapes are not on view to soothe your emotions or make you wonder if you’ve seen that bend in the river or that mountain at sundown. There are no bracelets or books or pots showing breathtaking feats of craftsmanship. No disturbing works of conceptual art lie in wait. No politically charged assemblages challenge your politics. In short, this month the Barbara Conrad Gallery is full of mundane materials that have been assembled as a playground for your imagination.
Make of it what you will. But that, of course, may be easier said than done. We live in a world of gallery-going expectations that are fixed in amber.
If an invitation to let go of preconceived ideas seems challenging or off putting, you’re not alone. Installation art tosses out all the accepted ideas of what an art exhibition is or should be. We expect to see paintings, sculpture, drawings and crafts set out in a discrete manner not to be touched and only for viewing. The two exhibitions that just closed, the Four Corners Commission and Jeff Madeen’s intense political diatribe in the upstairs library, demonstrated two ends of the conventional art gallery experience. But they shared a “look, don’t touch” ground rule. In short, stay in your head.
“Foreign Spaces” invites you to enter an arena somewhere between head, heart, memory and life. The gallery has been filled with a collection of simple, contrasting materials – wire and bricks, tulle and canvas, sand and newspaper, ordinary objects that are raw and polished, heavy and light, gritty and shiny.
The only directive for viewers is an invitation to pick up a paint stick and walk through an opening. Two dozen large wire coils have been suspended from the ceiling. Any child knows you can play a wire spring and get a noise. When hit, the coils emit kaching or kachung, except the ones too short to touch the floor. Silence counts. If you wish, you can strike up a symphony. If you wish, you can try to match pitch or make the coils simply sing.
Along with the big coils, five huge bundles of black or white gauzy tulle hang from the ceiling. Immediately, I was transported backstage at a ballet. These dancers slowly turn, presumably by invisible air currents. Colorful strings meander through the “costumes” and fall to the floor, creating a mysterious circular pattern in thin layers of sand.
The five gauzy bundles and two dozen springs dominate the gallery, they are the big bodies in motion. Surrounding them are huge raw-edged slabs of canvas lining the walls. Small stacks of bricks stand beneath. And then there are the windows filled with crumpled newspapers. Every surface has been tinkered with. The bricks have been painted, so have the canvases – with stripes, dots, loopy flower shapes, spidery grids and odd hieroglyphics. Holes have been punched. Edges have been fringed or lined with thin paint. What to make of all this tinkering?
Dominating the gallery, a huge canvas ramp slopes into the middle of the room. On either side, the Second Avenue windows have been stuffed with crumpled newspapers. A few peep holes invite a stolen glance outside. I looked through and suddenly another face appeared looking in.
Could any unexpected human encounter be more perfect for “Foreign Spaces”?
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at judithlreynolds@ yahoo.com.