Frances Whitehead

at Tough Gallery, through May 25

Ellen Campbell

at Automatic Art Gallery, through May 5

By Fred Camper

Frances Whitehead and Ellen Campbell use natural processes and images from nature in their art. Both also acknowledge that their primary experience of nature comes from city gardens; perhaps this is why their work places natural objects in circumscribed cultural contexts. But my own experience of wilderness, mostly in northern Canada, tells me that nature was once quite different: unnamed, untamed, immeasurable. Most artists today don’t even try to give an account of wilderness, perhaps because so few have seen it, perhaps because it would be hard to contain any aspect of wilderness in a picture frame or within the walls of a gallery.

Whitehead’s installation at Tough, a basement gallery in an aging industrial neighborhood, consists of seven untitled pieces. A kind of semiruin, some of its parts are still functioning while the whole seems to be disintegrating. The plants bending toward the light or the moths hatching in a cage won’t be with us forever; the huge porcelain columns with which Whitehead has covered Tough’s four wooden support pillars appear to be crumbling. The cultural artifacts in these pieces have a powerful, almost uncanny precision, a mathematics of repetition and symmetry that reflects our culture’s control of materials; but ironically these precise alignments are disintegrating just as nature itself changes and decays.

Whitehead’s most dazzlingly precise work consists of two glass vessels hung, one above the other, from metal cables. Each vessel was custom blown for Whitehead by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; she’s added metal snouts with tiny holes to the funnellike bottoms, which release liquid one drop at a time. The upper vessel contains absinthe, the lower water, which is turning cloudy as the absinthe mixes with it. Below the lower vessel is a knee-high, 600-pound sugar cube, and absinthe water drips continually on the cube’s center. Whitehead told me that, among other things, this piece refers to a drink popular in 19th-century France (“very well documented in art history”) in which water was poured over a small sugar cube into a liquor containing absinthe-flavored anisette.

Maintaining the work’s precise vertical geometry is a spotlight directly above it. In fact what first impresses about this work is its ordered verticality, its almost Neoplatonic perfection. The light, the cables, the two glass vessels, and the cube of sugar lined up are reminiscent of the sculptures of Rebecca Horn. But here the dripping absinthe water has started to dissolve the sugar cube, which at this writing has a small hole at the top and tiny stalactites along the bottom where part of the edge has fallen off. Layered gobs of dried sugar water are spreading on the floor, and eventually the whole cube may break up. But even now the irregular, organic shapes of the disintegrated sugar read differently from the symmetrical lines of the intact cube, the wires, and the vessels. “It occurred to me halfway through making this that I was undoing minimalism,” Whitehead told me. The disintegration of the cube, a shape common in minimalist sculpture, under the force of a natural process prefigures the way outdoor works will be eroded by rain, wind, and ice.

Whitehead, 42, a sculpture professor at the School of the Art Institute, grew up in Richmond; both her parents are artists, and her mother’s interests in mathematics and topology were influential. A grandfather was a horticulturist. Nature started entering Whitehead’s work in 1987, when she began her own garden in Chicago–a “pastoral response,” she calls it in her statement, an effort to escape “the immediate oppressive environment in favor of a walled ‘Paradise.'” She follows her wide-ranging interests wherever they may lead–absinthe, for example–and is “greatly interested” in the way that words beginning with A have recurred in her recent work. She also mentions the influence of “the self-conscious historicism of Richmond–Virginians are preoccupied with history. I grew up around neoclassical architecture, and there is a utopianism in that neoclassicism. As a child I was trundled off in school buses to Monticello and Mount Vernon.”

Whitehead took the design of her four columns from the bronze columns in Bernini’s baldachin for Saint Peter’s. But the highly irregular surfaces of the porcelain, which she and assistants made in sections and mortared together, are calculated to suggest decay. Whitehead used a “crackle glaze” and allowed drips and streaks of glaze to remain, there are cracks in the porcelain, and the tops of the columns don’t meet the roof but are finished with sections that cracked during firing. She calls these apparently crumbling columns “overtly theatrical”–a term that might also describe her live luna moths and slide projector behind a curtain.

A wire cage containing cocoons, one live moth (more are expected to hatch), and two dead ones sits on a glass table to the left of the lantern projector. If the installation is viewed head-on, a tall, translucent rosin curtain, which is colored deep green by a light above, mostly conceals the projector. Whitehead might be alluding to the magic shows in which such projectors were once used, but she allows us to peer behind the curtain. The projector casts an image of a moth at an angle on the wall so that it’s greatly distended, covering almost 20 feet, and distorted. Wires on the wall trace the perspective lines an artist would have used to make a similarly anamorphic painting; such paintings were common in the Renaissance and baroque eras. But this piece is haunted by a kind of sadness, a feeling of failure. The curtain doesn’t conceal the clunky old projector; the caged moths will be born and die never knowing freedom; the stretched image of the moth on the wall is pale and grows more dim as it expands–it’s never as solid as a painting would be.

Here Whitehead extends to every aspect of her work the now-standard idea that there’s always a gap between an illusionistic image and its subject. In her piece nothing is free, nothing is concealed, nothing is convincing. Evoking the paradox of our postindustrial postmodern era, it reveals that nature has been tamed–has become just another image, whether in a cage or on a wall, among a forest of images, some magical but none carrying the force of belief or the feeling of truth.

At first I thought the imagery in Ellen Campbell’s ten paintings at Automatic was closer to raw nature than Whitehead’s installation. Supra, which is typical of her work in the show, depicts a dense thicket of leaves, branches, and pears painted with the kind of care and skill all too often absent from gallery art today. Each leaf, each fruit is seductively modeled; multiple layers of paint provide a feeling of real depth; the textures are varied and tactile. The picture’s organic feel and its several layers of foliage, suggesting a vast forest, convey a bit of the unbounded feeling I associate with wilderness.

At the center of Supra is a mysterious elongated shape. Brown branches are dimly visible near its edges, but most of it is black; at first one has the feeling of staring into the heart of a thicket, but there’s something a little too symmetrical about the shape for it to be organic. Another look at the title, and at a few of the other titles (Integra, Olds Calais), and one realizes that the dark shapes in many of the paintings are inspired by automobiles. In her statement, Campbell says that the “central shapes are borrowed from contemporary culture.”

Campbell, a Chicagoan, first told me that she bases these dark voids on cars because “that’s just a convenient shape,” but later she acknowledged that the meanings we associate with cars are also important–as are the “grandiose and pompous” names given many models. She also mentioned the irony of the early Infiniti ads, which presented cars as if they were “forces of nature.” The fact is that the automobile and the culture that derives from it–suburbs, shopping malls, supertankers–are great despoilers, and by placing barely identifiable silhouettes of cars at nature’s core, Campbell suggests a reason why our natural world is rotting from within.

Campbell’s designs are also oddly mechanical and repetitious. In one untitled painting (number six on the gallery checklist) there are fewer levels of foliage and no central shape; though the leaves are as complexly textured as those in Supra, the whole pattern looks less like nature and more like wallpaper or a tablecloth. Indeed, in her statement Campbell speaks of “generic floral motifs,” and a floral paper towel is stuck between some pages of her book of slides. In Olds Calais, one of her strongest works, the leaves densely clustered around a dark area are not only repetitious but seem to grow in thickness and solidity near their rounded tips, as if they were part of furniture moldings or an ornate picture frame. (In fact, three Campbell paintings are mounted in store-bought oval frames with repeated “natural” shapes.) Olds Calais is perfectly if oddly balanced: its “nature” is midway between supple organism and decorative, solid commercial pattern. If one takes the second view, the dark silhouette of a car at the center becomes the true subject and nature merely its adornment, just as nature enhances the Infiniti and repetitive landscaping “frames” our endless highways.

I left both exhibits elated by the pleasures they offer but somewhat saddened by the way the artists seem to have accepted as a given the taming–or, for me, the destruction–of nature. I suppose I shouldn’t complain. I could always go back to Canada. Or perhaps not. Much of the airspace above one of my favorite regions, Labrador, has been rented out for many years now to the German, Dutch, and British air forces for low altitude, high-noise training flights.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “installation by Francis Whitehead”.