The Durango Arts Center’s latest adventure in collaborative installation, “The Wall,” is simultaneously inviting, off-putting and puzzling. The north wall alone has never looked so menacing.
Covered with galvanized steel, Michele Sensing’s floor-to-ceiling work consists of a rusted-skin barrier that holds 37 photographs. Cacti, grass, the sky, sand, dirt and a lone wild turkey inhabit a no man’s land along the Arizona-Mexico border. Sensing spent time at the border observing the contrast between soft, fragile nature and the harsh reality of a border wall. It’s a unique perspective imaginatively presented.
Sensing’s work anchors another innovative exhibition at DAC that arose from a proposal.
“This is an example of what a proposal system can elicit,” DAC Exhibits Director Peter Hay said in an interview at the gallery. “Proposals mean taking input from the community, and this exhibit blurs the lines between curator and artist.”
“The Wall” also questions how artworks come into being. The works here can loosely fall under the conceptual art umbrella. Driven by ideas, conceptual art projects may go through many filters and rely on association more than recognition.
Compare that process to first-filter painters such as the Plein Air school of landscapists. Working directly from nature, these artists interpret what is seen directly on canvas.
For “The Wall,” seven conceptual artists began with ideas about walls, barriers and obstructions – whatever blocks “the passage of humans, flora and fauna,” as Sensing writes in her curator’s statement.
Conceptual exhibits are never easy. You have to stop, look and think about what you see. If you have the capacity to freely associate ideas and images, you’re on the right track.
Sensing’s border wall is variation on landscape art. Take it in with a glance or linger over all the images. Her floor photographs of found desert objects offer a different experience. Walk on or over the photos but consider what you’re walking on.
Sensing’s works are the most accessible in the show. So is Ryan Aragon’s blunt plaster cast of a fist, “Break On Through.” So is Veryl Goodnight’s small pewter model of a huge public sculpture: “The Day the Wall Came Down.”
Created in 1996, the work shows four horses leaping over a fragment of the Berlin Wall. Two sister castings exist of finished work: One is outside Berlin’s Allied Museum, the other is at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M.
A video of the 1997 unveiling with President Bush presiding is worth watching, especially as the screen sits near the illusion of another wall – bricks painted on the DAC windows.
Conceptual art often relies heavily on the use of metaphors. Sandra Butler’s mysterious “Hierarchy” is an elegant example. Wedged between two walls, Butler’s assemblage begins with a large, white-painted driftwood ladder, an ancient symbol connecting earth to heaven. It rises from one of Sensing’s desert floor photos with an unexpected impediment – an oval of rusty barbed wire. Combine all those elements and you have a dreamlike conundrum, a meditation on aspiration and obstacles.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.