Off By smcdx

“Locations” at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University until Dec. 23rd is a three-person show, designed especially for installation in the Museum.

The artists all live in the Boston area, Hera, originally from Texas and New Orleans, came here with inflatable ideas about four years ago.  She has shown at various galleries and outdoor locations and had a major installation piece at the ICA last year.  Chris Sproat went to the MFA School, received one of their 5th year traveling fellowships some years back, and has exhibited at the ICA and the MFA as well as elsewhere.  He was one of the many artists dislocated by the Jamaica Plain factory fire.

John Christian Anderson comes from Los Angeles.  He is the youngest of the three and although he has exhibited in several west coast shows, I believe this is his first exposure in this area.  I found the show provocative, stimulating and affecting on many levels.  Having recently complained about the pretentiousness engendered by ‘site’ shows, I should eat my words in this case.  Chris Sproat in particular has met the ‘site’ challenge beautifully.  Because it is so well designed for the location, I wish the show had been entirely his.  The flaw in this exhibition is that the other work is not compatible and interferes with the unity Sproat achieves between architectural space and his own ideas.

Hera’s “Death Singer” unintentionally becomes an aggravating intrusion, which interrupts the serenity and reflections of Sproat’s “Palace at Mantis”.  It is unfair to both of them, because I also enjoyed and admired Hera’s work more than ever.  It is simply that the proximate presence of her lugubrious “Death Singer” made me feel slightly frantic – the way tour guides do when they hang around trying to distract you and take control of your perceptions.

Sproat has two major pieces in the show.  Upstairs, “Fire and Ash” is a cool and dazzling piece.  Covering the entire rear wall, the bottom half is painted black, and the upper part rubbed rhythmically with gray graphite.  A red neon tube crosses the black, horizontally, just about waist level.  In late afternoon, when it gets dark, the red not only glows but resonates through reflections in the windows and walls opposite the work.  It is dramatic and economical as a statement.  It transforms the whole environment but is “cool” enough so that the excitement it provides is subtle.  A central stairwell built over a reflecting pool leads downstairs to Sproat’s other piece, “Palace at Mantis”.  It is also on the back wall.  This is a more complex but (in this sense of balance and economy of means to achieve the desired effect), equally “classic” work.  The band of gray at the top of the wall is smaller, leaving black as the predominant background, and it continues around the corners, thereby framing the main wall.  Here the black is divided vertically into sections by double bands of pale blue neon.  Small Plexiglas boxes, contemporary reliquaries, each containing a fragment of bird skeleton, are mounted in these sections.  At either end, in front of the side panels, two very tall but tiny throne-like chairs face each other solemnly.

The overall effect is one of mystery and controlled power.  It is reminiscent of the sensation of awe and formality one feels in the presence of important ruins where the spiritual function of spatial sequence and order makes an indelible subconscious imprint on the mind.  Sproat intended the piece to reflect in the pool and to thereby regain possession of the whole space.

Despite the disadvantage of competing idioms and intent, the very different personalities are interesting.  Hera’s “Sweet Skirt” which fortunately has a room to itself, is one of her more delightful and successful didactic pieces.  It consists of a wonderfully elaborate, painstakingly fabricated, white tulle “skirt” decorated with nosegays, feathers and ribbons, which surrounds an inner skirt or slip of pink taffeta, lined with babies, nipples and contraceptive ironies.  They fill the room and hang from hoops suspended from the ceiling so they cover you from head to knee.  You enter them like a maze (as in her piece at the ICA last year) fumbling along through claustrophobic layers.

It is a feminist ‘coup de grace’, simultaneously visceral, poignant, witty, charming and outrageous.  Her ironic sensibility is also evident in “Death Singer”.  A purple velvet funeral shroud actually festooned with lilies, wraps around a wood “coffin”- like structure, whose top is a burial mound of sand luridly illuminated with candles.  It sustains a kind of sickening fascination, which attracts you, to investigate and then turns out to be farcical.  Hera is not always funny, but when her sense of wit and our irony have full play, they carry the punch of a superb cartoon.

The entrance to the museum is festooned with a blue vinyl swag.  It is interesting and theatrical on a temporary basis and lends the place a celebratory air.

John Christian Andersen is over exposed in this company.  He has a nice feel for an environmental approach and apparently a lively energy and mind.  In this show, his work seems derivative of others of its kind, and unfortunately lacking the authority of touch and purpose so evident now with Sproat and Hera.