The Four Elements, the subject of a group exhibition at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art through June 20, were long regarded as the fundamental building blocks of matter in much of the ancient Eurasian world, although immaterial voidness was added to fire, water, earth and air in India, and cultures under the influence of one Chinese system added wood and replaced air with metal.
Curator Madeline Beck wondered what it would be like to explore the use of traditional elements in a contemporary world where we know that things are much more complicated chemically and socially. The artists and artwork she chose have met the challenge superbly, and the wall text she’s provides defines the questions brilliantly without spelling things out excessively.
In the introductory gallery, for example, we find work by Eleanor Neal featuring pigments pulled from living plants onto paper, and as we encounter further work by Neal, we learn of her interest in the parallels between literal forces of nature such as water and our psychological forces in terms of depths and fluidities. Eventually we also encounter her fascination with ancestral narratives of the Gullah or Geechee inhabitants of the coastal Lowcountry.
Fabric sculptures by Jamele Wright Sr. combine Georgia clay and Dutch wax cloth.We also find fabric sculptures by Jamele Wright Sr. that incorporate Georgia clay into patterned Dutch wax cloth that carries with it a complex story from Africa. In very short order, we then encounter work by Pam Longobardi made from plastic debris cast from oceans onto the world’s shores. We also encounter work by Eloisa Gallegos Hernandez that uses tea as a drawing medium, but tea’s relationship to water and the earth may look different eventually if we pay sufficient attention to Christina Kwan’s acrylic ink and pen on paper abstractions based on landscapes, which turn out reflect her complex relationship with an East Asian heritage that she loves but cannot make fully her own.
Without violating the focus on the four elements, Beck has dealt adroitly with issues of ethnic identity, the global environment and any number of other topics, although this becomes apparent only upon reading the text blocks accompanying the artwork. The black clay from which Donté K. Hayes’ delicate yet powerful ceramic forms are made is self-evidently symbolic but just how symbolic becomes apparent only upon reading of his deeper intentions and meditations on Afrofuturism and African diaspora culture (other Hayes works are on view in an exhibition at Atlanta’s Whitespace Gallery through Saturday).
Joseph Guay’s The Purity of War series is formed from the detritus of natural materials transmuted into military ordnance and then into artwork: nickel-plated gas canisters, fuel pumps, grenades and vintage mortar rounds, for example, or gunpowder embedded in resin to create a skull sculpture. As with so many other works in this show, history and nature collide and intermingle confusingly. The elements are far from elemental in their consequences.
Even artwork that engages most directly with nature has historical dimensions. Chad Awalt’s wooden sculptures of figures reduced to a few minimal elements bear the names of wood spirits and Greco-Roman goddesses, as noted in his captions.
Sculptor Doug Pisik and glass artist Robert G. Burch provide the most unconventional approach to collaboration and materials, producing spectacular abstractions in which molten glass has been poured over wood, with the wood narrowly rescued before its incineration. The results are a lovely melding of two ordinarily incompatible art forms, of which they remark, “This is what art looks like when the artists are not afraid to set their works on fire.”
Corrina Sephora contributes a char rendering of ladders that was produced by removing metal sculptural forms direct from the forge and applying them to water-soaked paper. This collision and dynamic harmony of elements is carried throughout the exhibit in an extensive variety of ways, including a watercolor in which the water comes from the Pacific Ocean and produces an abstracted landscape absorbing the essence of its coastal subject matter. The large painting Sun, Moon and the Universe sums up the cosmic range of works that include the boats that are another of the artist’s preferred symbols for spiritual search and eventual homecoming.
Kevin Palme has approached the element of water mostly through paintings of ice cubes, paintings that are as lastingly static and solid as ice cubes are transient and easily liquified. He also has created a floor drawing of ice cubes that is made from sea salt — a transient artwork made from a dry medium extracted from water.
In contrast to the other artists here, Scott Eakin sought to comprehend the overall history of the four elements in European culture, with a particular focus on color. In The Alchemist, he began with Aristotle’s ideas about light and dark and incorporated alchemy’s interest in metallic colors and their transformations. The companion Scarmiglioni’s Argument carried the color symbolism into the research into the four elements that undercut Aristotle’s model of light and color and their relation to the elemental structure of the universe, or lack of relation.
With the latter work, Eakin, like Sephora, set out to make a “cosmological painting.” This means that the exhibition begins with what were once considered the most fundamental elements of the universe and reaches a sort of conclusion with a couple of artistic theories of everything along the way. It visits some of the world’s most prolonged historical discontents and presents a surprising number of unusual experiments with artistic technique.
That is more than enough to justify an extended visit to The Four Elements, and Beck deserves to be complimented for the breadth and coherence of her curatorial vision.