private nature, an elegant group show on view at the Swan Coach House Gallery through November 4, explores what the show’s curator Teresa Bramlette Reeves describes as “the elusive and private nature of memory” through the lens of an experience of nature. An artists’ talk is planned for October 23 at 11 a.m.
Reeves’ curatorial statement, which offers a concise rendering of the ideas and themes that inspired this show, is required reading and a fantastic place to begin. Her inspiration for the show began, at least in part, with the series of exquisite, playing card-sized cyanotypes of regional waterfalls which the photographer Emily J. Gómez encloses in the kinds of hinged cases that once held 19th century daguerreotypes. In Gómez’s hands, photograph becomes artifact of time and place, and even of memory itself; the ethereal is made tangible, as if, Reeves writes, “one could carry the wonder of a waterfall with you wherever you roam.” Gómez offers the perfect encapsulation of the ideas that Reeves examines through the seven artists assembled here, namely the impulse to “possess and quietly savor a bit of nature’s power.”
The video-based works of Emily Bivens seem to explore this idea of possession, or at least the desire to possess, most obliquely. On one wall of the gallery’s foyer, a silent projection features a woman slowly revolving as she cradles a motionless pigeon in her arms. Further rotation reveals the futility of her efforts; her sweater, laced up the back and bound at the arms, becomes a kind of straightjacket, and the pigeon, it slowly becomes obvious, is not just sleeping, but dead.
With “Pigeon Vision,” Bivens again employs video, this time in a bright blue Telebinocular with monitor. Here, we look on as the cradled pigeon, very much alive this time, falls asleep in a woman’s arms. It takes a while, but wait for the moment that the pigeon finally does fall asleep; it elicits a very human, maternal response, at least it did in my experience, and isn’t that desire to care for something “nature,” too?
Other works examine the idea of nature more and/or less directly. Dayna Thacker’s ever-beautiful and mind-blowing paper cutting skills celebrate its beauty. Her “Creation Story: Knot[s] numbered 1-5,” all from 2021, employ cut paper, metal leaf and pastel to create her own netlike forms that reflect Buddhist themes of interconnection as expressed in the metaphor of Indra’s infinite net of jewels, wherein each jewel reflects all the other jewels to symbolize the interrelationship of all the cosmos. Thacker evokes the sense of awe that comes from walking beneath a dome of stars on a clear winter’s night and knowing that we too are made from the same stuff.
Katy Malone shapes works of mixed media on paper (all from 2015) into brightly colored, rather amorphous forms which she mounts specimen-like with insect pins beneath glass in an art/science recombination that implies an effort, or at least an attempt, to pin down something of the natural world. With that desire, Malone’s work bears a kinship with that of Eric Mack, represented here by several works on handmade paper, all from 2020, with which he combines rose petals, wildflower foliage, Xerox and acrylic paint to invite the outside world into the home, providing, according to Reeves, “a private Eden within a domestic interior.”
Two other works, “PLZ-0100” and “0010” from 2020, organic shapes in faded tones of latex paint on paper, were less decipherable and read to me as abrasions, near-erasures, of memory. Perhaps that was the point, perhaps not. It seemed to be so with Mo Costello’s “leftover” (as she describes it) untitled sculpture made from found cardboard and soot. It conjured, visually at least, James Castle’s drawings made from the same, but Costello’s, unlike those of that deaf and self-taught artist, seems to highlight the absence of human presence.
Nowhere is the absence of human presence more manifest, more present, or the themes of the elusive nature of memory and experience more powerfully delivered than in the unspeakably poignant collection of rocks that once belonged to Justin Rabideau, Reeves’ former colleague at the Zuckerman Museum of Art. A simple white enamel bowl filled with rocks and other natural objects rests on a pedestal. Prosaically titled “Collection,” it is dated “unknown — 2018” for the year of Rabideau’s untimely death, when the collection was left to the anonymous friend from whom it is on loan.
These seemingly inert objects still bear all the attention and intention bestowed upon them by this now-absent man when he walked in the light like we do now, delivering nature’s last word for us all. Though some things remain longer than others, nothing is permanent. Everything is fleeting. Maybe we can hold nature; we are nature after all, but only for a short while and only in our own time.
Donna Mintz is a visual artist who writes about art and literature. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the High Museum of Art and MOCA GA. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Sewanee Review, Sculpture magazineand BurnAway. She recently completed a book about writer James Agee and holds a master of fine arts degree from Sewanee’s School of Letters at the University of the South.