This month's Arts Alive at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka showcased three very different exhibitions that, each in its own way, explore the interconnected resilience and breakdown of complex systems. In addressing the conceptual and the material, the group show Powerful Fragility, Clea Felien's Ever Giving, and Annakatrin Burnham's T/HERE, incorporate modularity, physical limitations and structural repetition, leading viewers to contemplate strength and breakability, and a web of contradictory relationships between them.
Powerful Fragility, running through March 19, highlights these relationships in the natural world, and in our engagements with it. The show includes Bay Area artists, Hagit Cohen, Kimberley D'Adamo Green, t.c. moore and Carol Newborg, and seeks to zero-in on an intersection of biology and spirituality. It draws on ecological philosophies of Alexander Von Humboldt and the visual language of earth art and land art in an array of photographs, fabric art, sculpture, installation and paintings.
Among the show's visual ruminations on pattern and connection in nature, moore's "... are we not all animals? No. 1" and D'Adamo Green's "Irreplaceable" series use tactile elements in captivating ways to juxtapose specific natural forms and human-made materials. In moore's piece, a dense circle of several-inch-long horsehair emerges from the center of a large acrylic mirror on the gallery wall. The object calls to mind a giant hair brush and points to grooming again with the viewer observing their own image in the work. The mirror's slick surface contrasts strongly with the hair, and both provoke the desire to touch. In contrast, D'Adamo Green's small, abstract wire sculptures recall petals, butterflies, wings and bubbles. Clear membranes stretch within the circular shapes that wind around one another in various shape permutations. The membranes are actually skins of dry white glue, which prompts a reconsideration of the elasticity, durability and even identity of this ubiquitous, unnatural substance.
Upstairs from the group show, Felien's aptly titled painting exhibition Ever Giving runs through Feb. 26 in the Knight Gallery. Cargo ships confront viewers head-on in Felien's abstract paintings on paper. The vibrant images represent the artist's reflections on the March of 2021 incident in which the container ship Evergiven was stuck for six days in the Suez Canal, interrupting global commerce and economies. For Felien, the Evergiven event "illustrates humanity's unbridled greed and gluttony." In the context of the other exhibitions at MGMA, the geometry of containers represented in her bold images becomes a grid that calls to mind intangible processes interwoven with large, physical, integrated structures. The backstory of the images sits on the technological paradox of billion-dollar trade networks halted, literally, by mud.
Back downstairs, Burnham offers viewers huge, delicate ceramic 3D grids that protrude from the walls and floor into the space in T/HERE, on view through March 12. Smaller sculptures composed of ambiguous, colorful clay forms packed into dense bundles sit within smaller, gridded structures that evoke complex mathematical constructions. Small, white, softly geometric forms placed outside the grids accompany the larger sculptures. And on the walls, flat, non-representational collages of repeated, overlapping and vibrantly colored organic shapes frame the work.
Burnham says she wants viewers to develop their own viewpoints on the work, bringing their unique perspectives and associations to the art. This exhibition is a survey of her work over the past eight years. It contains four bodies of work, which she calls the "Bricks," the "Collages," the "Grids" and the "Objects."
Having previously made art for public venues using cement, steel tubes, wood, fabric, ice and snow, Burnham focused on ceramic in the projects included in this survey. She writes, "I'm fascinated by architecture, design, a mix of materials and the ephemeral juxtapositions of nature. I hunt for forms and search for the unending characters of aesthetics. However alluring other materials are, ceramics is like a mother tongue for me. I keep coming back to its familiarity and it pulls me in leading me on explorations, hungry to know more. The material of clay and its mechanisms are so incredibly seductive to me, the more I pick apart its processes, the deeper in love I fall."
As with much of the work in the two other exhibition at MGMA, multiples are at the core of Burnham's practice. Visual repetition and variations on formal themes dominate the visual field in her installation. The process she describes for her object construction is an intuitive one. She makes the individual components in a way that is not "preplanned" and fits them together how it feels "natural" to her.
Encountering the work, the apparent fragility of the large structure structures in particular is striking. The thought of building such fine strands of unreinforced, fired clay is daunting for anyone who has dabbled in the medium. The dominant — and seductive — contradiction in this work exists between the overwhelming boxy geometry of the large grid sculptures and the very personal trace of human hands in their composition. Soft impressions texture the entire surface of the form, made from innumerable, minuscule, tender squeezes of thumb and finger, coaxing the tendrils that comprise the big grid.
The Morris Graves Museum of Art (636 F St., Eureka) is open to the public noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday ($5, $2 seniors 65 and over and students with ID, free to kids 17 and under and members).
L.L. Kessner is an Arcata-based artist and writer.