Watching soaring birds at Bair Island Wildlife Refuge on Sunday had me chasing down techniques for depicting the passage of time in 2D and 3D form. Bair Island has an excellent nature viewing observation deck on the south end of the preserve. Facing north one sees the extensive land that not too many years ago housed a marsh-destroying salt pond business. With dedicated community activism the land was reclaimed and is now in the process of rejuvenation as a natural habitat. The idea is that the life cycles of the wildlife living above, below, and within the marshlands will return to original forms.
After a bit of hiking I had stopped to take in the northward view from the observation deck. All was stillness. I let my eyes adjust to the natural forms of marsh plants, mud, and water that opened before me. I felt peaceful, quiet. Then, to the right, a crisp white form caught my attention… a tern was flying in from the bay. Terns are particularly delightful to watch in flight. Resting my eye on the leftward progression, I allowed my mind to abstract. The flight trail morphed into a long, arching line that eventually extended across the full width of my viewing plain, where the bird now drifted downwards towards a muddy hillock.
Whoa, what’s that? My eye had been caught be another motion and shot off to the right... Oh. The blur of freeway traffic, heading north. My gaze slid along with the rushing vehicles until a group of distant trees blocked the vision from view. My eye immediately fell downwards to a group of white specks standing out in contrast to a dark background. Beautiful: a flock of gulls resting on a mud bar. Or, perhaps, white specks of paint on my canvas?
How would I paint this grand scene? Could I somehow depict this in 2D form, this play of movements as they shift and evolve in time and space? Would I paint the hills first, the marsh second, the freeway traffic of individual cars squeezed in between? How to layer in a sense of distance and the movement of flying birds? On overlay? How to avoid the sense of still snapshot? How to depict the constant motion? What about now scraping out the depth of paint that I’ve painted on as freeway cars… I’ll leave just a hint of color to symbolize the cars and their movement. Then I’ll add a single line that is the tern in flight... a long scrape of white, this one thin and arching across the canvas from right to left, through the blue sky, over the gray hills, cutting through the traffic with a piercing edge to land with a graceful uplift at the mud flat. Now, what would happen if more lines are scraped or sanded into the composition? Could these serve to denote the patterns of more birds and wildlife settling in and out of the landscape. Would this give off the subtle impression of an active environment in constant change?
Excited by these thoughts I drove back to PMA and headed into the Museum galleries. I was curious to see how the guest artists at the Museum addressed the concept of time and flow in their artwork. Upon arriving I found myself in a fertile field for exploring this topic.
"The Great Blue" by Krytzia Dabdoub
Krytzia Dabdoub is presenting her show “Migrations,” a grouping of very large works on canvas, in Decker B Gallery. I was surprised to see how well the show blended with my Bair Island experience. Across the canvases many layers of watery paint had been splattered, almost like rain, upon mixed media objects and scraps of rough fabrics. Here and there amongst the watery tones a shimmer of thick golden paint flickered in the light with brilliant contrast. Were these canvases depictions of mankind’s mindless debris floating in… what? The sky? The water? On the shore? Was the gold peeking out a symbol of hope? Was this a case for nature reclaiming herself or would we humans need to take charge and change our wasteful behaviors?
I felt the Blair Island experience surrounding me in that room: destruction turning to reclamation, decay giving birth to renewal, disrespect blossoming into reverence. While standing in front of the expansive “The Great Blue” I went so far as to hope that eventually, with creative awareness, we humans could turn all damaged parts of the earth back into healthy communities of life.
Paintings by Kim Frohsin.
Next door, in Decker A Gallery, is Kim Frohsin’s “Cautionary Tales: The ‘Conification’ of San Francisco.” Normally a painter of abstracted figurative forms, Frohsin was surprised to find herself painting this series of paintings centered around traffic cones and cautionary signs. In early 2015 a move had necessitated that the painter travel through a part of San Francisco that was undergoing massive destruction and redevelopment. She felt like she was seeing orange/black/white barrier signs and cones at almost every block of her travel route. They were on the street, on truck bumpers, on temporary fencing and road blocks. Caution! Beware! Do not enter. As she described it, the cones practically rose up and grabbed her, demanding to be painted. She was catapulted into an intensive flow of creation that practically took over her life, lasted three years, and from which she was able to produce a large body of cautionary artworks.
Frohsin’s process for creating this art, while slow and technical in some ways, had a creative energy so heightened that slow movements became infused with fast and frenetic power. When first viewing the cone paintings one recognizes her time-intensive mastery of the tape and paint layering process that created these tightly formal-looking compositions. It is when we pause to look closer that we take in the wild nature of the layers and feel the almost supercharged frenetic urgency of the project. The scrapings and layering of chance colors and patterns that underride the triangular structures of the cones give the objects almost humanistic qualities. Perhaps the cones are warning us that time is passing, to hurry up and take precautions, to be careful to make wise choices for the impending future... The viewer has now been thrown into her own cautionary tales, and is mirroring the fierce urgency of the artwork.
Walking through the North and East Galleries I found the 2D and 3D works of Robert Haemmerling. This sculptor and collage artist took me on a tour of quirky abstractions of the human form, all of which could be seen to address time and flow. Haemmerling has a naturally charming ease for arranging crude shapes and textures into forms that hover near the heart. When we look at his constructions (smoothed wood chip figures, exquisitely collaged jawlines, faces with newly placed pairs of eyes, and in one case a figure that has a guitar arm as his forearm) we see signs of acute suffering and transcendent survival. These elements combine to achieve a deep elegance that speaks of what it means to be human, from the inside out.
Robert Hammerling's "Patty" and "Carl"
As we gaze at the individual personalities we wonder: “Who are you? Why looking so odd? Do I trust you? Oh, I know that feeling. I see now that you might have had a little trouble back there in the past. I also see that you have smoothed out this bumpy coarseness of your life. In fact, I like you. I want to run my hands over your shoulders and down the flow of your arms. Oh! You have a metal pin here. Did you break your shoulder? It is all smoothed out now. You seem to be ok. Do you mind… I want to whisper to you: Well Done.” And, risking all, “I love the changing you that is hidden within your shape, that is also changing within me and hidden within my shape.”
"Athletes in Motion" by Ron Burgess
In Arabella’s Gallery, we take in the abstract works of Ron Burgess. These quickly executed gestural paintings move us out of the confines of static form and into the realm of movement. Reality becomes an interplay of spontaneous chance expression within creative time and space. The practice of pouring and dripping paint has enabled Burgess to produce gestural images that trick our viewing minds into believing the movement is timeless. The storm will continue to form and bypass us. Athletes will continue to play. Bold laughter will continue to erupt from the hilarity of all moments. We move forward and survive even though we are but a memory.
Heading out of the Museum and across the courtyard, I visit the Studios Gallery. Here I find that local studio artist Annette Legallet has also presented a body of work that touches on the themes of time and flow. “Source of Life” is an exploration of the elusive qualities which might be found not only within the cracks and crevices of wild nature, but also within our abstracted thinking abilities. While these paintings might be thought of as nonspecific landscape forms (mountains, canyons, boulders, and trickling waterways), there is an energetic quality to the imagery that pulls the viewer inward.
Abstract works by Annette Legallet
In her statement Legallet invites us to search for our emotional responses to the individual pieces. A thoughtful viewer has the opportunity to look far into his past and perhaps into the future. “Am I affected by this painting, and in which way? Do I want to return to this feeling in the future? What is wild nature to me? Did I feel this emotional intensity when long ago I sat in the desert at dusk? What does it mean to sit in wild nature and then notice that other travelers have joined me? When is wild nature made tame and when is wild nature destroyed? Can a tamed wilderness be born again into a new source for life?”
Legallet’s invitation for us to enter into an internal dialogue brings us full circle, back to Krytzia Dabdoub with her warnings for us to pay attention to how we use and abuse our precious resources.
Meanwhile, out at Bair Island a tiny Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse (an endangered species) scrambles to the top of the pickle weed to escape the rising tide. What will this little creature find when the ocean recedes six hours later? Will she be forced to navigate over and around flotsam and jetsam that has been scattered about by humanity’s thoughtlessness? Or will she instead find a reformed and nutritious biosphere that revives her zest for life and stimulates hopes for many generations to come? As small as this thumb-sized mouse might be, the ultimate survival of her species comes down to us. Can we humans learn the art of respectful and creative cohabitation with nature? It’s all about keeping our eyes on the times while we hitch a ride on nature’s flow.
"PMA Heartbeat" contains the personal observations of the artist in Studio 26, and not necessarily those of PMA as a whole.