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Disturbing the universe

"Transformation/Revelation: The Art of Change"


Though we rant and rail against it — or refuse to acknowledge it until forced — humans must learn that change is the only constant. The best and wisest way to deal with it is to adapt. This is the echoed-through-the-ages sentiment that introduces "Transformation/Revelation: The Art of Change," the current exhibit in the Memorial Art Gallery's Lockhart Gallery, curated by Marjorie Searle. Artists not only transform materials into objects of beauty and story, she writes, but some "become agents of change themselves by deliberately using their art work to influence viewers' awareness and opinions," and "in a paradoxical twist, we observe that the artist is one who captures change permanently."

The show is made up mostly of prints with some drawings and paintings, which speak to the universe's marvelous, bewildering, and undeniable types of change. The transformations include cycles of the earth and of human life, with depictions of the dawning day, spiritual shifts, political epiphany, and what we think of as the dreaded ultimate: death.

No show on transformation would be complete without a masterful tessellation by M.C. Escher, and this exhibit includes the print "Mosaic II." Equally masterful are the engraving and woodcut by Albrecht Durer dealing in revelations and miracles from biblical stories. Plenty of mythology from older cultures is represented, too, including George Lockwood's 1960 rough, dark lithograph, "Persephone," which alludes to one convoluted Greek explanation for the changes of the seasons, and Théodore Chassériau's 1944 lithograph, "Apollo and Daphne," which catches the titular nymph in the moment of transformation into a laurel tree. Arms up, feet taking root, her river-god father granted her wish to preserve her chastity from lusty Apollo, who can only fall to his knees and grasp at her in frustration as she hardens against him forever.

Other works allude to a mature awakening to the world, or to ourselves. Katinka Niederstrasser's 1972 etching "Second Face" is a finely detailed, delicate rendering, in which two large hands peel a thin layer off a close-eyed, androgynous face to reveal wide open eyes beneath.

"Silver Moons" is a serigraph by Edna Wright Andrade, created around 1969. In its simple composition of differently shaded circles on a silver ground amid a labyrinth of lines, it reminds us that our own shy moon, fading in and out from our perspective, in reality possesses a permanent fullness.

The 1973 serigraph "Untitled (Skull)" by Jasper Johns is a stark memento mori work, reminding viewers of our own mortality with a print of a black skull on the white end of white-to-black gradient, above a thin line of a red-to-violet spectrum. The skull is likely life-sized, but seems so very small when we confront it face-to face.

On to political works — and there are plenty represented. Thomas Bayrle's 1971 serigraph "Mr. Big" features row upon row of identical Asian-looking men, sardined into the form of one giant man who grasps a steering wheel. This work reflects the artist's concerns with the hierarchy of power and consumerism, particularly in China, where much of our manufacturing industry has moved, and "where workers' lives and needs are subsumed by the larger (and often stifling) government agenda," Searle writes in the provided statement.

Sue Coe's 1990 photo etching, "Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of His Meat," is an inky noir scene outside of a butcher shop lit by moon and lamplight. The meat display to the right is in sharp contrast to the very live-looking crowd of livestock following a startled man who clutches a McDonald's bag. This would be that intentional poke an artist gives to try to elicit change in her audience that Searle referenced in her curatorial essay.

"Big Daddy" is a 1970 serigraph by May Stevens in which a central white, grotesque old man sits in a bright blue background, holding a dog whose self-satisfied expression mirrors his own. Like a paper doll, the man is flanked by costumes including executioner, military officer, cop, and butcher — interchangeable, as far as the artist is concerned. Stevens's early work "grew out of a resistance to the Vietnam War and support of the Civil Rights movement," reads the curatorial card. This work is modeled on the artist's father, as well as "the authoritarian, fascist regime that the figure represented."

After moving through a series of transformative personal losses, Stevens "softened her palette and moved away from the satiric and didactic depictions of the 'Big Daddy' series," says Searle, and Stevens's "subject matter became more reflective and fluid." Her aesthetic moved from the hard, crisp, clear, and pointed tone to one that lends the feeling of being adrift and struggling to make sense of life, as in the 1994 lithograph, "Te Quiero Verde (I love you green)." In this print, a faint figure sits in a rough sketch of a rowboat, oars out like fragile wings, lost in a sea of silvery, illegible words.