Birds with Plans, Lost Children, and Degrees of Separation
by Jen Graves
on Sat, Apr 27, 2013 at 11:18 AM
Sean M. Johnson's portrait of a lost child, made out of nails hammered into drywall and based on the photograph from an FBI poster, is at LxWxH Gallery in Georgetown.
How real is the theory of six degrees of separation between every human? Is there a similar separation between birds in murmurations? (Spectacular video of starlings.) And what about the separation between humans and other animals? Can humans convincingly imitate birds? How much of what we do is "natural," and how much "cultural"—because, isn't culture natural?
I'm thinking about all this because of three seemingly unrelated art exhibitions in Seattle right now. One: Sean M. Johnson's Pieces of a Whole at LxWxH, up through May 4. Two: Cass Nevada's Release at Shift, just up through today. Three: Joseph Gregory Rossano's Whitewashed at CoCA, which opened on Earth Day this past Monday and is up through July 19.
Cass Nevada at Shift.
Nevada, fascinated by the murmurations of birds, painted similar swoops and storms across a series of found naval maps on the walls at Shift. Jackson Pollock famously said he didn't paint nature because he was nature. Nevada's pieces seem to test the theory that a painter's physical outbursts reflect something more authentic or "natural" than predetermined artistic creations made from detailed plans or sketches. Some of her paintings do seem to capture that perfect of-the-moment energy in their marks; others feel more forced, like imitations of impulses. What exactly are the differences? That's harder to say.
At LxWxH, Johnson's portraits of lost children are murmurations, too. The nails are hammered in at varying depths, forming an undulating surface (and creating the effect of shading you'd see if this were a pencil drawing). The surface has its own rhythm. But it's premeditated. The pencil lines the artist set down to guide his hammering are still visible.
There's another connection between Nevada's paintings and Johnson's portraits: the question of closeness versus aloneness. The nails in Johnson's portrait hang together like the birds, forming a society. But the fact of a stolen child is a rip in that fabric. It feels so awful that it threatens to tear everything apart. Does one wrong move by a bird ever cause them all to come crashing into each other and out of the sky?
Rossano's exhibition Whitewashed is a demonstration of his admiration and respect for extinct and nearly-extinct animals, including tigers, basking sharks, and polar bears—his feeling of closeness with them. Why does he identify? Why do any of us?
One of Rossano's boxes contains this unexplained archival photograph of a tiger in a lab.
Rossano invites visitors to explore his white "kinetic specimen boxes," sculptures, and videos.The white boxes are drawers in which Rossano has placed photographs, DNA charts, paintings, animal skins, related found advertisements and objects. Behind all the whiteness, and whitewashing, as the title implies, there's a proliferation of information—Rossano even commissioned a scientist to write an essay about each animal he profiles. The act of opening the drawer brings a surprise each time. It's the surprise of facing something you kind of recognize, and kind of can't.