The idea of transforming an outdoor site or the interior of a museum/gallery into a work of art itself is now formally classified as environmental or installation art. The objective is to change the viewer's perspective from looking at a painting or a sculpture, to one of feeling surrounded by and engaged in a wider sensory experience.
John Hylton, currently teaching Beginning Sculpture at Humboldt State University, is a gifted mixed-media artist and a master of installations. This month he solos at Piante Gallery with a challenging and evocative installation involving the entire gallery expressing his life-long fascination with origin stories of ancient cultures and their resonance with the latest cosmology of modern science.
"I grew up in Southern Ohio," said Hylton. "My family had a piece of raw land very near the famous Serpent Mound, and whenever we went for a picnic we would visit this ancient earthwork. I guess those experiences must have stuck in my head because I've been talking about cosmology in one way or another in my art ever since.
"The first room of the gallery is devoted to a work I call The Oracle. I've been inspired by such diverse influences as the astronomical precision of the tombs of Mayan kings, the Delphic Oracle, as well as the Kaaba, the great cube in the center of Mecca."
Hylton interprets these influences in his own unique way with wood, clay, twigs, and twine hand-woven into flawless nets, materials that are as old as his stories, but still the stuff of our modern world. "I think of myself as a sort of Neolithic storyteller talking about current cosmic themes," he said.
John has found the perfect guides to lead us through these themes in the form of ravens. More than 50 clay ravens have been raku fired, vitrified, thrown into the reduction bucket to achieve -- voilà! --perfect raven color. From a dramatic perch, itself a symbol of renewal, the ravens communicate with the humans that are huddled in The Oracle, telling them about what's really going on in the universe.
Another room of the gallery holds Big Lagoon Observatory Station, originally shown at the Accident Gallery, and back after a two-year installation in Santa Cruz. Hylton gives us a glimpse into the humor and intelligence displayed by trickster-god Raven that inspires legends in all the Pacific Northwest Indian cultures. The observatory, a full-size shed, has been taken over by the birds for their own advanced-study program of the cosmos.
"I love some of the silly stories such as how Raven found the humans in a clam shell," said John. Yet the stories playfully convey the early storytellers' high esteem for these birds and man's ancient bonds with them. It is important that we be clear about this as some modern attributions might lead us astray.
The book Medicine Cards by J. Sams and D. Carson states: "In Native teachings the color black means many things, but it does not mean evil. Black can mean the seeking of answers, the void, or the road of the spiritual or nonphysical. Raven brings in the new state of wellness from the Void of Great Mystery and the field of abundance."
It will come as no surprise then, to see our feathered scholars busy making calculations about the position of stars and contemplating Hylton's exquisite woven models of black holes and Gamma Ray Burst.
Writing about installation art is much like writing about a movie and avoiding spoilers. There is plenty more to experience here -- Hylton has done a masterful job of communicating profound ideas.
"With my use of materials, I'm trying to maintain an earthy human feel," said John. "These ideas can be experienced in nature as much as they can be described in computer graphics. This show, in a way, is my reaction to how removed we have become from sensing or even caring about the physical world. Most people don't look up at the night sky in any meaningful way. They couldn't begin to tell you where any of the stars might be at any given period of the year or what the moon is doing. Early societies had unifying origin stories that gave them a sense of their place in the bigger picture. We seem to be focusing on playing video games with little thought that we even need to be aware of much else. Meanwhile, we're over-heating and things are starting to collapse. I hope my art will encourage viewers to deepen their sense of belonging and of wonder."
What more could you ask for from a work of art!
Meet the artist and his very best friend and wife, Nancy Barr, at the Piante Gallery (620 Second St., Eureka) Arts Alive! reception at 6 p.m. Oct. 1.