TBE 13 Part 3 :: OVERTURE FOR A MOTHERLY TOWER

20 May

THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

INSTALLMENT 13 :: QUILTING IN MADISON

May 20, 2010

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3. OVERTURE FOR A MOTHERLY TOWER
The day passed, as they do. The street filled. Along a central stretch, a tall, broad, white building stretched an entire block in length and depth. Multiple staircases traced their way from tiled lobbies to metal terraces, only a few stories tall, but with a matriarchal posture. A mother watching over her young.

Her doors beckoned; though with the sun long set, we were sure they wouldn’t budge.

But they lifted up and out, unfolded like wings and shut us in to a cavernous space whose light struggled against the imposing dark that came through the windows like a cloud of starlings. A pillar of absence ascended through the building’s center, cutting a hole through each floor before touching the sky. A stairwell, lit with phosphorescent trails running serendipitously along the banister, departed from just in front of us.

We didn’t know why the galleries would be open. Perhaps the building’s love of art was truly that of a mother: unconditional. Our feet led the way, each gallery jutting off the main rotunda like the modular home of an eclectic collector. Stacked on top of one another. Rooms in a tower, the spiral staircase giving way to greater and greater views of a world a moment ago hidden.

Gallery One: Miksang contemplative photography.
A Tibetan word meaning ‘good eye,’ it means more than a vision field split into thirds: ‘a mind uncluttered.’ Without distractions. Based on Shambhala, a tributary of Buddhism. In the hall-like space, these Madison students of Miksang displayed their photos proudly—the visual representation of their uncluttered minds. One in particular caught my eye: an arc of individual machines, black against a field of snow. Bicycles. From an off-kilter aerial view. Chained to a curving bike rack, buried up to the spokes, at 3 and 9 o’clock. The title: ‘Wisconsin Bicycle Visibility Index.’

Here, more than in any other piece, the contemplative, unfiltering eye was apparent. With his lens, and later paper, the photographer did not capture the scene, but rather documented it, as a scientist documents the movements of small cells on a slide. It is my cynicism, and perhaps our collective lack of magic, that causes me to fill in the surrounding context: the photographer is nothing special. Doing nothing special. With no special, spiritual symbolism. No special method. It is a bike rack in the snow. Someone else, with any religion and any camera, could’ve created the same. But a fledgling mystery nudges me toward a realization that is inherently true: someone else didn’t.

Gallery Two: Print Exchange, Theme: ’Home’
Up the stairs, a show, a community. A print exchange is not a metaphor for shared lives; it is a definition of it. The artists in this second hall, who are as present as if they stood next to their respective works, collaborated on the theme, resulting in myriad representations: a girl lying on the floor, her body anchoring a rope, which suspends a house in the air… a heart, whose chambers are lain out like a cross section of a contemporary home, cluttered aortas and family ventricles with televisions and coffee tables… a single, jagged line, cutting horizontally through the canvas, as one might imagine the origin of a canyon—or a canyon from space.

Gallery Three: Quilts, ‘Stitched Ground.’
This collection housed behind glass and watchful eyes: both human and mechanical. Embroidered cloths—perhaps heaven’s, perhaps not—line the first section of the room. But our eyes are drawn to the next artist, a quilter whose patches are like woodchips, tiny scraps of fabric, as if the textile was shredded and stitched back together. She made maps, or representations of maps, or geographical commentaries via representations of maps. Art is like this—it asks questions of questions. The roughly 4’x4’ quilts depicted farmscapes and river valleys, contoured with these chips of fabric, assembled almost like found objects.

Other artists followed: buttons and glittery beads for a show entirely about manholes: in the artist’s mind, the doors to an underground world. Cross-stitched roads followed paths that switched orientation as quickly and effortlessly as television channels. Above ground, or under, or viewing both simultaneously.

In a dark corner, two harrowing pieces. The first: autumnal fields and pastures, a farming community. Giant hole in its middle: a square cut-out. In its place, an alternate but truer reality: same green fields, same contours and textures. Cross-hairs: ‘Practice Bomber Range in the Mississippi Flyway.’

The second: a forest scene; deciduous, coniferous, undergrowth; a man trekking through. Spliced throughout, a grid of streets, incongruous orientations, the dotted yellow lines as though from above; the forest at eye-level: ‘The D.O.T. Straightens Things Out.’

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[PART 4 (FINAL): SOON]

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