Contemporary artists Sandra Butler, Jeff Madeen and Joan Russell have taken on one of the great questions that have twisted even the most robust minds throughout human history: What is the true nature of reality?
Their new show, Down The Rabbit Hole, is an installation centered on interactive sculpture at the Durango Arts Center. Following its run in Durango, the installation will be featured at Eggman and Walrus in Santa Fe, N.M. beginning in June.
The physical size and complexity of this installation speaks to the heart of each contributing artist and the enormity of each idea represented. The entirety of the Arts Center main gallery has been transformed into four rooms that address the themes of “Media” and “Incarceration” featuring artwork by Madeen, “Meditation” with sculpture by Russell, and “Play” with work by Butler.
The show is allegory come to life with experiential elements that lend an “Alice in Wonderland” feel. The four themed rooms are constructed around a revolving door suggestive of the role that chance and choice, logic and intuition, play in shaping our daily lives. Along the way onlookers will pass through the “Hall of Mirrors” with contemporary works by 18 local artists.
Much to the purpose of the exhibition, the artists want to challenge themselves and the community to question the filters of perception as they question the true nature of our reality. Is our world simply a construct of the mind? How is it that we can define truth when it is constantly being redefined? How are we to find center, that placid space where spirit and mind can thrive, in a world of illusion?
Potential answers to these looming questions however, are conveyed in the details. Utilizing repurposed materials, sculpture and the written word will help create an atmosphere that invites onlookers to push further the depths of the rabbit hole. The use appropriate found materials, old wheelchairs, mirrors, and other items is the backbone of the show.
“It has been an art form since Duchamp, Kurt Switters, and most recently Rauschenberg,” Russell said of their choice in materials. “(The materials) bring a history of their own enhancing the feel of our created environment.”
The first two rooms of that created environment are the “Media” and “Incarceration” rooms. The “Media” room features several looped video feeds and other elements that challenge onlookers to question NSA and even Durango High School tactics and their “justified” invasion of privacy. Madeen also will tackle the idea of truth as it is constructed by media and repurposed to suit the actions of those in roles of authority.
“Think about the way most people believe the news. If it’s on the news then it must be true, Right?” Madeen asked.
The “Incarceration” room features a prison cell as its main context. The cell bars are lined with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Erich Fromm, Franz Kafka and more that question the role of authority, the corporate nature of the justice system, and the prison of the mind.
Madeen admits that his work at one point was very confrontational and in-your-face. His goal though is to get people to ask questions.
“I’ve toned it down a bit,” Madeen said of his artwork, “But once you know the truth, how can you speak anything but?”
Dwell simply on these two aspects, media and incarceration, for long enough and you may begin to go mad, to begin to rant; you might even be inclined to buy an underground bunker, or even plan your immigration route to more temperate climes. It would be easy for these two aspects to dominate the atmosphere of the show, but we who scratch at the itch of the soul and course along the scenic route know that life does not center on these two aspects alone. We have the spirit and the joy of play to nurture.
“We agree with Jeff,” Butler said, “and know what he says is true, but sometimes he can get carried away. It’s like one of the wheelchair seesaws in the show. We (referring to herself and Russell), balance Jeff out and it takes the two of us,” Butler said, laughing as she pointed out the sizable differences in height between her and Madeen.
Balance can be found in the “Meditation” room. The room will challenge visitors to look inward. Filled with interactive sculpture and hand carved artifacts, one example of which is a framed portrait of Marilyn Monroe, her face divided down the middle by a mirror, invites us to consider what it might be that we share with every being. Or, simply to channel our own inner Monroe.
“Of course true meditation practice has a goal of being one with the universe, but initially it brings us to a conscious awareness of our actions and thoughts,” Russell said of the “Meditation” room.
Russell, a full-time painter, spoke to the challenge of the installation and the deviation from her familiarity of the canvas.
“The objective of creating a space that has theme and content is exciting. It is quite profound because it is so experiential. The illusion of painting in just two dimensions is a very different animal and a very different experience for the viewer,” Russell said. But the greatest challenges have been more technical in nature.
“Dealing with gravity!” Russell said.
However, what may be a challenge for one artist is another artist’s playground. The last room of the show, “Play,” constructed by Butler, Education Director for the Arts Center, is a “non-conformist playground that will hopefully bring joy and questions,” Butler said.
The room utilizes mirrors and features abstract wheelchair teeter-totters and other playground equipment marked by cautionary signs of their implicit danger.
“The idea is to question the role of restriction, conformity and responsibility for our physical self. We want to provide an atmosphere that will prompt questions,” Butler said.
And what are we to do with so many questions? Imagine Plato’s allegory of the cave. For those unfamiliar, recall the roles of Morpheus and Neo in the movie “The Matrix.” It was the prisoner of Plato’s cave, after being released from a lifetime of imprisonment that came to recognize the possibility of freedom and that knowledge is available to those who are willing to question, to turn their gaze from the dancing shadows of things that entertain us and toward the blinding light of what is true. Perhaps the artist, the prisoner freed, can provide us with the keys to move beyond the quotidian if we are willing to walk down the dark corridor of Question, to plunge headlong down the rabbit hole.
email@example.com. Ben Brashear is a Durango resident and freelance contributor.