Mixing matter at MoNA

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A glorious assemblage of David Eisenhour’s sculptures of sea creatures, cast in silvered bronze, greets the visitor to “Neo-Naturalist,” currently at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA). These brilliant objects celebrate our joy of discovering the beauty in nature. 

Guest Curator Robert Yoder places a very different piece opposite the Eisenhour gems. The huge painting “Switchback,” by Michael Paul Miller, shocks with its pathos and despair. Here’s a ravaged old man who cradles a smoldering bundle of wet sticks. All is black, white or gray, save for an ugly orange blanket. It’s the flip side of our encounter with nature: “change and loss.”

What follows is an eclectic mix of realism, expressionism, found objects and punk art. Yoder has selected an iconic piece by one of Skagit’s most honored artists, Philip McCracken: “Caged Bird” remains as startling today as in 1958, when it was commissioned. A squat owl of dark, polished wood, compressed into a steel rectangle, is both dynamic and tragic. 

Two echoing bird sculptures by Peregrine O’Gormley are equally muscular. His life-size “Ally” clings death-frozen to a wind-blasted branch. And “Scythe,” wrought from glistening, night-black wood, evokes the instant of an owl’s stike.

Beneath “Scythe,” six black rectangles depict the end states of drought and fire: Allen Moe’s concrete casts of charred Ponderosa and larch, and castings of dried mud cracks. Moe’s quiet gestures evoke maximum effect.

Strewn about on the floor appear to be several stumps and logs. Only when I crouched to read that they were Karen Rudd’s creations from corrugated cardboard and glue would my eyes accept their masquerade. Does she suggest, in the absence of nature, we can take comfort in its semblance? 

Photographs carry on the theme. Stephen Cunliffe gives us “Extinction I”—the artist’s lens filled with dead fish—and “Extinction II,” a heap of rusting vans in a muddy lot. And in Mary Randlett’s 1966 photo, “Gas Works Park,” I finally understand the power of her work. The sky is a scrim of attenuated cloud above looming refinery towers casting black, angular shadows.

In a full-wall installation, Joseph Rossano juxtaposes images of polar bears, cranes and tuna with data entries to suggest that their disappearance will be reassuringly documented. Tiny captions give the game away: “Let us put forth all our efforts to save a threatened species from extinction,” said William Beebe in 1906.  And from Jack London: in the Arctic, “man realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more.”

Three large paintings by Todd Horton announce this artist’s arrival in serious territory.  In an oil diptych, songbirds frolic above a giant bear. The birds’ wings have daubed the sky with paint. His “Cargo 2” and “Cargo 3”—strong colors, powerful action—suggest Cubistic container vessels, capsizing in a troubled sea.

On a different note, in the Benaroya Glass Gallery, Etsuko Ichikawa has installed a set of sandboxes and hand figures which invite visitors to undertake the healing, nonverbal Japanese play therapy called “Hakoniwa.” This Jungian-inspired cure for depression is timely, indeed.

Or the viewer could take solace in the selections from the permanent collection on the second floor. The theme, fittingly, is “Green,” the most restful color and a refuge of the spirit. Here are paintings and prints by Leo Kenny, Max Benjamin, Mark Tobey, Dederick Ward, John Cole, and several others. Many are paired with quite remarkable poems.

If you like what you see at “Neo Naturalist,” works by Horton, McCracken, Randlett, and Eisenhour can also be seen through May 3 at the nearby Gallery Cygnus.

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