Rain Dance, September 18 – October 20, 2011

Original press statement extracted from the catalog essay written by board member Shane McAdams:

Rain Dance, like the ritual from which it takes its name, features work that metaphorically examines the contemporary ambivalence with the state of the natural world, and considers how much control we can have over it. Additionally, the work of Nick Lamia, Jason Middlebrook and Leslie Wayne, each in their own way, investigates the universal notions of ambivalence and simultaneity.

Read Shane’s McAdams’ full essay after the install images.

Installation images (Courtesy of Etienne Frossard):

Full catalog essay written by Shane McAdams:

Before the advent of evidence-based medicine or modern pathology, barbaric practices such as trepanning and bloodletting were used to treat diseases considered to be fatal. The thought was that if even a small fraction of treated patients survived these procedures, those treatments were worthwhile. Unfortunately, many doctors were unaware that a greater number of patients would have been saved by their own immune systems if holes hadn’t been drilled through their skulls. It’s almost comical now to think of leaches as a cure for pneumonia, but that’s only because we’ve normalized the lessons gained from scientific pioneers like Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur. One has only to look at the mysteries confounding us today, from autism to cancer, to be humbled.

The point is, there are two ways to face any problem without an empirical solution: actively or passively – to attack it head on with a little ignorance, or to let nature and time work their magic at the risk of making it worse. Take pressing issues such as climate change or overpopulation: for every voice calling for society to disavow industrialization and technology, there’s another advocating for more technological intervention, hoping to ultimately outpace the negative effects of human activity with the positive.

There’s a juncture on that active/passive-continuum where inaction and action converge, and every decision becomes right and wrong simultaneously, where uncertainty as a self-substantiating truth takes on unique form. Call it the “Hamlet Point,” or the “Tao Te Ching juncture; “ it’s a state of ignorant enlightenment that also happens to be creativity’s sweet spot; the dialectical furnace of all civilization’s singing, dancing and painting and musing about the unknown.

It seems somewhat paradoxical that civilization’s quandaries should manifest in actions that are as highly motivated as a rain dance or a work of art. Though it makes sense if one considers such actions as opportunities to put handles on concepts that are inherently difficult to grasp. And because life still presents its healthy share of existential imponderables, artistic interpretation and rituals such as the rain dance are still practiced in regions as far-reaching as the Caucasus, East Africa and Arizona, USA.

Works of art have the potential to confront metaphysical enigmas with an individuality, self-awareness and intellectual agility that standardized rituals can’t. Through metaphor, art maintains a unique agency to address the contradictions at the core of life’s murkiest issues. Rain Dance, like the ritual from which it takes its name, features work that metaphorically examines the contemporary ambivalence with the state of the natural world, and considers how much control we can have over it Additionally, the work of Nick Lamia, Jason Middlebrook and Leslie Wayne, each in their own way, investigates the universal notion of ambivalence and simultaneity
itself.

Jason Middlebrook’s work mines the margins between nature and culture for charged and contradictory visual content. His paintings thus achieve an awkward stalemate between the understated beauty of the naturally-formed object and the bravura and calculation of the man-made composition – like natural artifacts stained with human fingerprints. These concerns are evident in two works included in Rain Dance. “Plank #6,” featuring centralized painted array of multi-colored wedge-shaped forms, radiating from a central point. In the recent history of art, this geometric configuration is familiar, unlike the irregular ring pattern of the raw wood slab underneath. The organic marks interfere effectively with the geometry of the design, amounting to a fascinatingly abrupt collision. The work rests informally against a wall, neither aggrandized like a traditional canvas nor supine like a wood remnant. Similarly, his vista of a city at night in “We Are Not Alone” sandwiches a perspectival grid, the lights of a city spreading toward a distant horizon, and the pattern of raw wood underneath. In doing so, art history – in the form of the grid – wedges its way between the natural wood and
the artificial lights of the city, adding a subtle and contingent voice to his ongoing dialogue between nature and culture.

Art about contingency should be distinguished from art that is simply contingent, or ambiguous, just as idle uncertainty is not the same as performing a rain dance to address a state of uncertainty. Nick Lamia’s installations reflect the inherent uncertainty within dynamic systems such as cellular and urban growth patterns. Like these complex systems, Lamia’s work inhabits a state between order and disorder by controlling what he can and leaving the rest to chance. The paintings at the heart of his sprawling installations combine hard-edged forms with gestural, abstract paint strokes. Though clean and somewhat architectural, the marks in his work are fluid and organic, clearly the traces of an expressive and discriminating hand. The environments that build off the paintings, however, are populated with forms generated by the hands and decisions of participating spectators. Viewers are invited to position and reposition sculptural elements such as colored blocks and tiles in relation to the fixed painterly elements. Portions of the final composition are beyond Lamia’s and the viewers’ control. His installations are thus founded on the bedrock of history, both through “the painting” as an object and through “painting” as a timeworn practice. The impact of the installations lies in the degree to which this immutable history squares with the ever-evolving environmental/relational component of the work – a contradiction that makes his work as stable as factual history while remaining as fugitive as unwritten science fiction.

While Lamia’s work transforms during the course of the exhibition, Leslie Wayne’s luscious, colorful paintings look almost as if they transformed on their way from the studio to the gallery, like a stack of hot pizzas or an ice cream cake jostled on the way to a party. But even as they inspire notions of a delicious accident, they go far deeper, wider and longer. On a second take, they grow associations by the canyon-full. They might be cross-sections of continental plates that started flat and only buckled and bent over the course of ten-million years of environmental stress. Or psychedelic glaciers inching their way toward candy-colored oceans. Wayne’s work resonates at a very universal, macro level, rhyming painterly materiality with the natural materiality, forcing the viewer to toggle back and forth between those jarring and awesome scale differences.

Rain Dance further propelled by its loaded relationship to notions of the natural and the synthetic, a duality that never settles to a comfortable equilibrium. For Wayne, the juxtaposition of forms and timelines husbands the viewer from visions of an artist squeezing tubes and troweling mounds of oil paint, to those of mountains
being raised, razed and sculpted by rain and wind. Her work very clearly arrives at issues at the heart of Rain Dance: those of control and withdrawal; culture and nature, and the impossibility of reconciling the vastness of geologic timeline with that of the human time line.

Wayne’s work also suggests the folly, hubris and cognitive dissonance that allows humans to keep moving forward amidst attempts to control forces far more powerful and eternal than they. It also implicitly asks the question, “what does a society do when the genie is out of the bottle?” Intervene or withdraw? Apprehend the genie or pretend it’s still in the bottle? Humans did create penicillin, but we also created nuclear weapons and
thalidomide.

Perhaps standing on the rim of an abyss, partially paralyzed by fear, is a permanent condition of society. Probably, diversity of ideas fueled by media feedback atomize and disseminate these ideas, putting contemporary culture in a uniquely polarized position, with non-interventionists pitted against interventionists, ignorantly and arrogantly maintaining their rectitude, yet paradoxically doubting the future all the same. In the past, such collective anxiety might have been consolidated by homogenous cultures into something that stood in for opinion: a rain dance, or another ritual that addressed the unknown and converted it into a supernatural solution that felt like solvency. As technology offers us more and more reason to hope, society grows more and more ambitious, if not more and more successful. In the presence of such a disparity, art is a rain dance looking inward for answers that can’t be shaken from the sky.

–Shane McAdams