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Seemingly disparate works reveal thematic unity, elemental concerns

Seemingly disparate works reveal thematic unity, elemental concerns

Sculpture by Johan Hagaman and paintings by Heath Seymour

Through July 1 at Zeitgeist

1819 21st Ave. S. 256-4805

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Wed., Fri.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.

At first, Johan Hagaman’s sculptures and Heath Seymour’s paintings currently on view at Zeitgeist Gallery don’t appear to have much in common. Hagaman’s concrete, mosaic figures are enhanced by glass and tile, inscriptions, and light. On the other hand, Seymour has created his most distinctive works on a series of vertical panels, rather than individual canvases, and each incorporates a running catalogue of images set into squares.

But while these works appear to have little in common, each can be likened to a kind of contemporary totem. By this I don’t mean that they act as spirit guides—which, in a sense, totems originally were—but rather, each appears to mark a state of being, which even the titles of some of Hagaman’s works imply: ”If You Can’t Stand the Heat,“ ”Bride,“ ”Through the Glass, Darkly.“

Hagaman’s ”Come on in My Kitchen“ is like a goddess of food and love, its well-crafted mosaic body tattooed with cookie-cutter forms in the shapes of circles and stars. ”To me, making sculpture is like cooking,“ explains Hagaman, whose work was included in the Tennessee State Museum’s 1998 ”Celebrating Tennessee Women Artists“ exhibit. ”Sculpture-making is more idea-based, but it’s still the same creative process. It still uses the same malleable stuff, and in both, you’re figuring things out with your hands, not your head.“ Willfully and skillfully blurring the distinctions between sculpture and craft, her sculptures have an atavistic sense to them, as if their concrete bases were a kind of earth she has molded with her own hands, and they draw inspiration from the same sources as early man—from the stars in the sky, the shells on the beach, the great forces of nature.

”I live outside a lot—I eat outside, I often work outside—so I wanted to see things sited out-of-doors,“ explains Hagaman, whose recent sculptures are an outgrowth of her work as a portrait artist. Today a number of her ”Shadow People,“ as she calls them, can be found almost hidden in the woods that surround her Nashville home, and when one comes upon them, they feel like sacred objects. And yet, because many are illuminated from within, they also take on a functional purpose, particularly in the evenings, when they light up the path leading to her home. The ancients, of course, also made functional objects that were intended to be much more than utilitarian. Their carvings, be they on jugs or totem poles, revealed stories that were essential links to the spirits; in much the same way, Hagaman’s illuminated figures point to the need to search inside ourselves for spiritual counsel.

Seymour’s paintings have an elemental feeling to them as well, although in his work, that elemental force is achieved through a compression of imagery—a leaf or a branch represents a tree or a forest, a house stands for a community or a soul. For this reason, Seymour likens his images to microchips, with each of his squares connoting a kind of visual metaphor that stands for a wide class of things.

Seymour’s boxed images are organized on vertically shaped panels and are set in a series on top of each other, usually with four panels placed side by side. His placement of images suggests a relationship between pattern and variation, and can be read much like the panels on a quilt, which pieces together the disparate experience of everyday life. Hagaman’s work with mosaics also conjures up the activity of quilting, by grouping together various found objects to form something altogether new. And just as Hagaman’s works delight in the arts of both sculpture and craft, Seymour’s paintings thrive in the space between art and design.

Seymour, who at 29 is represented by a range of galleries throughout his native Kentucky, borrows the geological term ”Sediments“ to title the five such works included in the Zeitgeist show, suggesting the layering of fossils on top of each other over time. (Seymour also includes in the exhibition a number of acrylics on canvas and smaller works of beeswax over pastel.) ”The images are like memories; they are symbols or icons that represent different points in my life and people around me,“ says Seymour, whose interest in geology and architecture dates back to childhood. ”Some images are paired, lines sometimes go out from one panel to another and suggest a rhythm of how things are played out in a plan. But the shapes I use are really like inkblots. They reveal more about the viewer than they do about me.“

If Hagaman’s ”Shadow People“ can be compared to three-dimensional portraits, Seymour’s works are surrealistic landscapes conjuring the convoluted but truer-than-life organization of dream sequences. His works take their cues from New York artist Jennifer Bartlett’s now famous ”Rhapsody,“ which she debuted in late 1970s with the stated intention of including ”everything in it.“ For her enormous endeavor, Bartlett began by positing a breakdown of the world into the most elemental of things: mountain, ocean, tree, and house; circle, triangle, and square. Housed inside each of the work’s 988 squares is a variation or repetition of one of these images, which cumulatively relate the revelatory patterns of nature.

For many, Bartlett’s ”squares“ instigated a revolution in the art world comparable to Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings or the color-field paintings of Mark Rothko. In assuming a similar format, Seymour continues to explore the boundaries of a relatively new abstract language, just as several generations of painters have continued a dialogue with Pollack’s gesture paintings. Having said that, though, both Seymour and Hagaman are clearly influenced by geology, archaeology, and anthropology as much as they are by the history of Western art: Both artists have created works whose strengths lie in the ability to transport viewers back to the very origins of human nature.

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