Arts & Culture » Visual Art


John Grade, the sequel


For six months in 2004, Seattle artist John Grade, in his first solo museum exhibition, transformed the Sculpture Court and an adjacent gallery at the Boise Art Museum into a fecund phantasmagoria of organic, biomorphic and anthropomorphic abstractions rooted in unfamiliar life forms and cultures. Fashioned from an array of industrial and natural materials, as well as more traditional mediums, his sculpture is a compelling amalgam of materiality and ideas--part travelogue, part science fiction, part poetry. The show included work commissioned specifically for the event, as well as a selection of drawings. A piece from the exhibit called Tower Sillustani is set to join BAM's permanent collection this year.

During our discussions in 2004 about what direction he saw his art taking, Grade said he envisioned a body of work that the viewer could actually enter and experience from within. That next stage has come to pass, and from May 11 to June 24, Grade exhibited the fruits of his recent labors at Davidson Contemporary Gallery in downtown Seattle, the central component of which was a major installation entitled Cleave. A second installation entitled Ring, and 16 graphite and charcoal drawings completed the show. In short, it was a body of work that ran from the monumental to the intimate, capturing a range of geographic perspectives.

As we saw at BAM, transformation is ultimately what Grade's art is all about, whether it be organic processes like decay and regeneration, cultural rituals surrounding life passages, or transporting an existing space into another realm. At Davidson, a significant portion of the gallery was transformed into a virtual geologic formation inspired by the artist's own interactions with such closed-in landscape features as the ice crevasses in the glacier fields of Mt. Rainier and the slot canyons of the desert Southwest. An enthusiastic climber and traveler/explorer (he may be the only artist whose work has been reviewed in The Mountaineer), Grade wanted to convey or "humanize" the initially claustrophobic, ultimately awe-inspiring experience of deep, water-created environments. Actually, the interiors of crevasses were referenced at BAM, too, in works like Caudex.

At 11 feet high and 45 feet in length, Cleave dwarfs the viewer entering from the blacked-out, cave-like front of the gallery. The installation's narrow passageway is curved, preventing one from taking it all in at once, instilling a sense of cautious discovery. The cobblestone-like walls are actually composites of cast resin, clay and goat fur which, after an elaborate process of drying, curing and erosion, achieve the look of an ancient, subterranean cavern. An enormous amount of material and effort went into its creation, including thousands of pounds of clay to coat the cast resin, which was later subjected to 10,000 pounds of pressurized water to create the eroded surface and partially expose the globes and bubbles of ice-blue resin. Grade grafted on acres of goat hair, simulating evidence of long-dry water runs while imparting an airless, primeval look to the structure.

But there is more to Cleave. While in its midst, we become aware of the subtle movement of light from above and within, light that never completely illuminates the tight quarters but creates moving shadows evoking the passage of time. As an added visual element, Grade projects onto the backside of both walls a video sequence of emerging, brightening and fading aureoles of light which pierce and set aglow the translucent resin. The combined lighting effects instill a sense of movement that in nature might have been provided by water coursing among the rocks. Indeed, as one grows accustomed to the slow, pulsating rhythm of the video, the whole installation seems to breathe, taking on a life of its own.

Grade's ingenious engineering of Cleave is impressive, but what are the aesthetic implications of the installation? For viewers unfamiliar with the artist, the question may arise: To what extent is this art? At times, Grade's sculptural work can seem more like science than art, his artistic impulses playing second fiddle to his scholarly fascination with the planet. Cleave teeters on the edge of this, its earthy tactility and cyclical lighting effects replicating a real-life, non-art environment almost too well. But despite the installation's empirical origins, it is art: a landscape-inspired orchestration of impressions, sensations and experiences that evokes a sense of place that dwells in both the imagination and the physical world.

Ring, the second installation in the show, is in many ways more in line with the work we saw at BAM. It, too, is a walk-in piece to be experienced and considered from within, a cylindrical chamber in which a perforated, honeycomb-like band of resin and clay is embedded, eye-level, around the circumference. The "ring" itself is reminiscent of works on view in 2004 like Silt or Hide that similarly evoke insect or cellular architecture found in nature.

Light plays a role in Ring similar to that in Cleave. In the ceiling of the chamber, behind a barrier, lights slowly pulsate from softly bright to almost dark. These alternate with lights behind the porous work which also go from light to dark, moving across the length of Ring whose irregular weight and density of design further manipulate the effect. We never see the lights' source, just the resulting ambience. Altogether, the work becomes an organic entity that rather eerily throbs with life.

Grade's poetic sensibility perhaps came most clearly to the fore in this show in his graphite and charcoal drawings on paper. This part of the exhibit could have veen called "Bones and Bogs," as the works are inspired by metaphorical considerations of both in the poetry of Robert Pinsky and Seamus Heaney, and Grade's recent five-month stay in Ireland. Particularly powerful are his large charcoal studies of storm-whipped Irish coastal areas, bogs "fermenting underground" and "seeps of winter" (Heaney). The title of one, Dun, an aerial view of ancient forts and sacrificial cliffs on an Irish island, aptly describes the dark romanticism of many of these works, rendered in a virtuoso technique reminiscent of Boise's Cheryl Shurtleff (Grade cites her art as an inspiration). Minimal and dense with no glass over them, they have a strangely evocative presence.

Grade's more delicate graphite pieces look like drawings of views through a microscope, i.e., petri dish landscapes of bacterium and cellular structures. Or they have an archeological thrust. The intriguing Trench suggests the imprint of some spined micro-organism or, as Grade suggests, a half-buried infrastructure murkily resting on the ocean floor. In the diptych Peat, vague, haystack-shaped huts he saw in Uganda dwell mirage-like in either a dark half-light or a bright mist. Grade's intense draftsmanship and quirky subject matter reveal a unique artistic vision.