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Mystic Materiality in the Round: Zoë Charlton’s ‘Smokey Hallow’ and ‘The Foundations of What’

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This month, two Baltimore exhibitions demonstrate the otherworldly storytelling power of objects: Zoë Charlton’s Smokey Hallow, a solo exhibit at Maryland Art Place which includes found and cast sculpture, prints, and monumental projected animation and The Foundations of What, a group show at Catalyst Contemporary, featuring works in marble, glass, and a variety of industrial and metaphorical materials by artists Jose M. Arellano, Alberto Cavalieri, Kei Ito, Gard Jones, Giulia Livi, Caryn Martin, Sebastian Martonara, James von Minor, and Geoff Robertson.

 

Zoë Charlton, Smokey Hallow Exhibit at Maryland Art Place

Zoë Charlton: Smokey Hallow at Maryland Art Place
On view until March 18, 2023 

Zoë Charlton’s Smokey Hallow is a spirited and moving homage to the titular African-American community, Smokey Hollow, in Tallahassee, FL. The solo exhibition, hosted at Maryland Art Place, feels welcoming and meditative while the narrative, centered around the repeating motif of a found wooden statue, traverses animation, printmaking, and sculpture to remember a sacred community that was eliminated by urban renewal, and to imagine future safe havens.

Viewers may be familiar with Charlton’s practice from her works on paper and recent installation, “Permanent Change of Station” at the BMA as part of A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration, which combines her signature drawing style with landscape images gathered from popular culture.

At MAP, the Charlton’s work on paper include three screen print collages, “Rendition (Suburbs)”, “Rendition (Barren),” and “Rendition (Starry Night),” which are tucked into an intimate viewing space off the main gallery. As I “read” these from left to right, they function simultaneously like a re-birth and a cycle. Each subtly depicts a suburban landscape growing barren with the image of “Sib (Ipseity),” a sixty-inch African wooden statue of a pregnant Black female figure, the key recurring motif of the exhibition, stands in the center hugging a toy-sized castle to her chest.

The screen prints have an undertone of longing as the statue tightly holds the fairytale-esque relic, a representation of an ideal of bliss within a thick layer of trees. The prints stare back at the viewer as if they were here to give a prophecy. The numerical significance of three could be a reference to the birth, life, death, cycle or the connections of body, mind and soul and the spirit present in Sib.

 

Zoë Charlton, Smokey Hallow Exhibit at Maryland Art Place, featured screen prints
Zoë Charlton, "Smokey Hallow" video projection, part of a solo exhibit at Maryland Art Place

In contrast, the centerpiece of the exhibition is a grand animation, also titled “Smokey Hallow,” and it completely transforms the space, especially compared to previous exhibitions hosted in the gallery. The playful single-channel film, created with collaborative art maker Rick Delaney, is projected onto the main gallery wall and centers on Sib’s movement and action. It begins with her waddling in from the mountains, simplified in shape and rendered in soft green watercolors, and through a layered flattened forest made of various deciduous and evergreen trees. The animated movements feel slightly comical as Sib slowly teeters with an audible click-clack of her wooden feet, her pregnant belly bopping up and down. 

When she reaches “an empty canvas,” a terra incognita, she “births” a tree by propelling it out of her body. She continues to walk back and forth birthing layers of lush vegetation. Meanwhile, another, identical Sib appears and gives birth to black and white houses, some of which are dated photographic references of “shotgun” style homes from Smokey Hollow.

Insect melodies and bird chirps echo through the gallery as I watch the celestial figures at work. A third Sib waddles into the screen and begins to give birth to suburban, modern, and archetypal houses, some pink and some blue over the old structure suggesting a timeline of a community’s development.

To an extent the film functions like a creation mythology or a playful historical recounting, luxuriating in the lush flora crucial for the health of the planet and the well-being of the people on it. As you watch the community grow, you are reminded of metaphorical mother-figures. The seemingly simple style of animation has crucial symbols and motifs that focus my attention on the idea of sacred spaces and communities of care built from this statue’s body. Since the film has repetitive elements it feels meditative, and the linearity of the characters’ movements suggest the slow progression of time. 

 

The physical “Sib (Ipseity)” sculpture commands my presence as she watches the viewers and the film from the adjacent wall. More than just a found object, her aged look and cracks through the wood suggest her own tumultuous history before meeting Charlton. Only slightly shorter than I am, she meets me almost at eye level. Her legs are somewhat bent, and her arms are wrapped around her pregnant belly. Charlton has cast this sculpture six times in polyurethane, and these replicas are shown on the stage of the gallery, grouped in an installation. The casts have a shiny surface as the artist lathered them with thick black acrylic paint, and they tower above tiny toy-like plastic houses. 

Casting is a process of care and transformation as one creates a mold that holds the original and then the replica. It can be a reflective activity as the artist cocoons the object. It is also uncanny and relevant that the hard shell in mold making is called the “mother-mold,” which translates to the generation of new sustainable spaces envisioned here, and the creation of more creative maternal figures to watch over future communities. It is noteworthy that Charlton is the co-founder of Kindred Creative Residence + Agro-Forest, an artist community that has a shared vision of sustainable living. This way her ideas of sacred and sustainable spaces come into direct play as human relationships and community strategy. 

The individual objects in the show function to build a larger cohesive narrative of communities and the possibilities for the future. Across media and scale, Charlton’s images and symbols are densely layered as “Sib (Ipseity)” appears again and again as a mother-figure watching and guarding the show. Her celestial figure stands as a guardian of hope and possibility as Charlton blurs the boundary of imagined and real histories. 

 

***

 

The Foundations of What at Catalyst Contemporary
On view until March 4, 2023

"The Foundations of What" install shot at Catalyst Contemporary

Sculpture can loosely be defined as the making of three-dimensional objects in abstract or figurative forms. Over the years this definition has continuously expanded and contracted to include installation, site specific work, and other physical combinations of media. I love engaging with the textures and materials of three dimensional works even if I can’t directly touch them. As a sculptor myself I know that the vast amount of labor behind a work is not always palpable, thus I enjoy seeing The Foundations of What, a group show of contemporary sculpture presented at Catalyst Contemporary, exploring how nine artists can blur the line between traditional craft and timely issues. 

While varied in style, material and subject matter, two core themes traverse through the objects: the front room is dedicated to politically motivated works that are predominantly built from precise industrial materials, while the back room pays homage to softer creations that play with ideas of perception, color and nature. 

 

Kei Ito, "Our Looming Ground Zero," Unique C-print (Sunlight, Stencil), Metal frame, Plumb Bob, Pigment, Twine Various, 2021
Gard Jones, "Lost," Glass, LED, limestone, rope, 2022

Upon entering the gallery, I navigate toward a large circle of black glass centered on the floor. Gard Jones’ “Lost” feels like a portal, a passage that I could fall into and its placement makes me crouch down and huddle above to catch glimpses of my own reflection. It appears to be hovering as a soft purple light shines from the underside and a bound jagged limestone is placed off center on the glass. His collage-like constructions feel futuristic and archaic as he simultaneously combines traditional materials with new methods of making. The artist’s hand only becomes partially visible.

I also catch a glimpse of myself walking by Kei Ito’s “Our Looming Ground Zero,” a series of framed words: tears, lollipop, wedding dress, you, family photograph, home, and memory, which sit underneath plum bobs. The decision to use text abstracts these objects since they are only represented with words making them more universal than specific. Ito is a Hibakusha, a descendent of atomic bomb survivors, and annihilation from warfare is a common theme in his work

Sebastian Martonara, a trained stone carver, presents “Seven Words,” a monument for turbulent times, combining the traditional process with current issues. He constructed this work from a found frame and marble that he carved seven words into: “diversity,” “entitlement,” “evidence-based,” “fetus,” “science-based,” “transgender,” and “vulnerable.” These were the words the Trump administration banned from use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the top US public health agency. It is troubling to think about this again, and the ease with which administrations can prohibit words and subjugate bodies based on their political agendas.

Across the room, Alberto Cavalieri plays with text in a different manner in “Blocks” cast from concrete. The artist references objects of desire, such as “Prada” and “bitcoin” more as a social critique of our material culture than as a lament of the unjust use of power.

 

Sebastian Martorana, "Seven Words," Found marble and frame, fabricated base, 2019
Alberto Cavalieri, "Blocks," Concrete blocks, 2022
Caryn Martin, "Slipstream II," Repurposed ink monotypes on tracing paper, site-specific, 2023
Giulia Livi, "Untitled Neon Study II," Mixed media, 2023 (L) and Jose M. Arellano, "Fantasma," Carbon fiber composites, 2021 (R)

Caryn Martin “Slipstream II” approaches environmental themes with a different material sense, a site specific work built from repurposed ink monotypes on tracing paper. I’m captivated by how it extends from the floor to the ceiling towering above the viewer and occupying space yet remaining weightless. Its sky blue and gray tones remind me of icebergs and streams, combined with the delicate nature of paper and its ability to be crumbled calls to mind the fragility of the ice caps. Meanwhile, the use of tracing paper implies residue, tracks and the effects of our existence on the ecosystem. Martin’s materials have a formless yet vessel-like quality, and the sculpture holds a second view when the gallery lights are turned off and the central lamp illuminates it from within. 

Even though it occupies the back corner, a vibrant focal point of the room is Giulia Livi’s “Untitled Neon Study II.” The work plays with the mind and the eye, and its optical effects are alluring and energetic. The wall-hanging sculpture is a band with a wave-like form over a solid strip of lavender painted on the wall. The front also appears to have small tiles either carved or attached into the form and is painted the same lavender as the wall. Yet, due to its relation to the neon yellow grout lines and yellow top and bottom, this lavender appears gray. Livi highlights how things are not always what they seem as they are affected by their relationship to other objects. 

I appreciate the craftsmanship present in all the works, which I believe is equally important as the messages about perceptions, culture, power and desire. Sculpture implies a direct involvement of the artist’s body and hand, which also translates to the viewer gaining an awareness of their own body in relation to spaces and objects, an awareness that can stay with them beyond the gallery. 

 

Artists included in the exhibition are Jose M. Arellano, Alberto Cavalieri, Kei Ito, Gard Jones, Giulia Livi, Caryn Martin, Sebastian Martonara, James von Minor, and Geoff Robertson. 

 

All install photos courtesy of the galleries.

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