"Visual Fragments,“ the current exhibit at Sarratt Gallery, might be more aptly named ”A Conversation on the Holy in Structure,“ but that would say too much too soon. The ”fragments“ depicted in Bill Griffith’s ceramic sculptures and in Vikki Martin’s drawings are a metaphor for how these artists define structureboth natural and manmade patternsand for our spiritual relationships to these arrangements. The two artists each accomplish this in a unique, though complementary, fashion: Martin’s drawings employ a visual dialogue between two halves of the same surface. Her images confabulate in pairs, while Griffith’s ceramics visually parallel their meaning, creating a sort of echoing dialogue.
Martin’s drawings are the cornerstone of this exhibit, providing the real substance of the visual ”fragments“they initiate the conversation. In her drawings, the Dallas, Texas-based artist juxtaposes manmade structures with patterns found in nature, such as the folds and striations of an artichoke or the arrangement of kernels on an ear of corn. Using Da Vinci’s anatomical notebooks as an historical source (and borrowing from them the habit of writing backwards), Martin also explores the architectural framework of the human form, placing a skeleton alongside drawings of sacred objects and places of worship.
Speaking from a purely technical standpoint, Martin’s draftsmanship is enough to impress any natural-science illustrator. (The chief botanical illustrator at the Smithsonian could probably offer her contract work immediately.) Her handling of plants, animals, insects, the human skeleton and organs, and historical objects isn’t just within the fieldthis highly technical blending of art and science is also illustrative of the field. Yet Martin doesn’t claim any ties to this type of work. She says in her artist’s statement that her intent is to explore the ”inherently metaphysical aspects of architecture,“ to explore the human psyche’s relationship to nature, and to ”cause a sense of awe, mystery, and reflection in the viewer, a sense of the presence and spirit of God.“
Even so, her aspirations aren’t so different from those of artists drawnpardon the punto natural-science illustration. Such illustrators come to know their subject matter by seeing it closely through detailed renderings on paper. The act of drawing internalizes the physical aspects of the subject, allowing the artist to know the thing better than if she had merely observed it closely. The results are not unlike the holistic blending of subjective and objective that makes up a personal narrative or a dialogue.
Natural-science illustrators are simply trying to convey information as accurately as they see it. Martin starts with this idea, but she goes even further by juxtaposing two or more objects, so that their individual meanings bounce off each other, in a dialogue between renderings that amplifies a sense of something intangible. In one case, the equation might read: The interior folds of an artichoke plus the Bhaja section of a Chaitya hall in India equals a sense of the sacred. But this is quite clearly a visual rhetoric, one that’s not well conveyed by words.
The funny thing about natural-science illustrationand, by extension, about Martin’s own workis that most people hold up this technically proficient, scientifically accurate style of drawing as being highly objective, as though science equals objectivity. In truth, it’s a passing on of information from one particular person’s point of view, so it must by definition be subjective, no matter how ”straight“ the rendering may be. Martin’s own impulse to form a discourse by placing two such images together perhaps masks this tendency to assume objectivity; it keeps us from thinking of her work as simply ”illustration“a dirty word in the art community precisely because it connotes work that’s used merely as a tool.
But all art serves as a kind of tool; it’s a device that allows the artist to know her subject. Martin is quite explicit in her artist’s statement about how she uses these ”visual fragments“: She shows us how we relate to nature and to the universehow we search for a sense of the holythrough the structures that surround us, both natural and manmade. So it makes sense in her drawings to situate a manmade aqueduct next to a bird’s nest; we are being invited to make a deep, meaningful connection between these two images. And, beyond that, we can also celebrate the fact that she has beautifully and accurately conveyed a dogfish embryo, or the cycle of the common swamp iris, or the Parsvanatha temple figures made years ago in India.
Bill Griffith’s ceramic pieces are ”dwellings,“ all wood-fired stoneware clay with natural ash glazes. He doesn’t say much in his artist’s statement about what he’s trying to convey, but he does mention that his works refer to forms from ancient cultures, including Japanese Haniwa, African, and southwest Anasazi structures. Combined with Martin’s drawings, they contribute to the sense of mystery and the awe of the sacred that permeate the exhibit. They seem very naturally to corroborate what Martin is ”talking“ about in her dialogic drawings.
The Russian rhetorician M.M. Bakhtin once said that style in a novel consisted of languages that relate to each other as rejoinders in a dialogue. I think he may have been talking at the time about E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. But this same idea could be applied to the ”Visual Fragments“ exhibit. In fact, as I ”conversed“ with Martin’s drawings, her use of temples or temple figures from India subconsciously made me think of Forster’s novel. In the book, the Marabar Caves ”confabulate in pairs“ about the holy, their arches echoing the arches of the temples in Chandrapore. Martin’s drawings do the same, while Griffith’s more formal ceramic shapes punctuate their meaning.
”Visual Fragments“ hangs through Mar. 18 at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Gallery.
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