It’s rare one sees a mother and daughter exhibiting their works together. Not only is it historically uncommon, but given how contemporary artists establish an individual style and identity, it’s almost unheard of. But then, that’s what makes “Between Times,” Carol and Emily Mode’s joint exhibition at Sarratt Gallery, so satisfying.
I confess up front: I’ve known Carol since moving here 20 years ago; her daughter Emily was 6 at the time. Indeed, I witnessed many of their artistic collaborations, mother and daughter drawing faces together on the family couch. Who could have known then that Emily would also grow up to be a committed visual artist? The installation of their pictures at Sarratt alternates between the two women’s work, accentuating their entwinement. But the collaboration here is less on style or theme; what counts is mother and daughter’s shared sense of purpose.
Carol’s paintings are acrylic combined with other media on canvas. If you’ve followed her work over the yearsparticularly the airport installation this Augustyou’ll see here that she’s continuing to clarify her graphic vocabulary of marks and shapes, solemn color relationships, and layered designs. What began decades ago as an expressive abstraction has continued evolving into a completely new style, yet it remains rooted in her past. At Sarratt there are stained and scraped surfaces, ghost-images, tracks and traces of gridded shapes; multiple stampings of ellipses, half-circles, and bubble-wrap patterns. It’s a haunted geometry, flirting in such a way between banality and profundity that a palpable visual tension is created.
Since studying abroad in 1996, the elder Mode has added cryptic shapes to her paintings. These resemble vessels and baskets, or primitive shelters. Some are lacy and organic; others more rigid, like bits of architecture lifted from a set of blueprints. Together, these signify human thought without being specifically human in formschemata of a logical order. Brought together with the muted briskness of her color schemes, Mode’s thin, multilayered surfaces can evoke half-barren, wild, and wintry landscapes. Taken more conceptually, they’re not natural landscapes so much as intellectual ones; the shapes and surfaces read as free-floating ideas within mental constructs of the brain. But look closely: The star-dappled skies of Taos, N.M., where she’s been an artist in residence for the past three months, have made subtle impressions on mind and body alike.
Carol Mode’s work taps into the idea of “structural abstraction,” a popular notion among contemporary artists. Rather than using the emotionally driven, spontaneous approach of abstract expressionism, artists methodically weave patterns taken from geometry and the decorative arts. While some point to Chaos Theory as an inspiration for the style, others find elements within the “Pattern Painting” of the 1980s, and even the ’60s style of “Op-Art.” One might summarize structural abstraction as the use of signs to explore the organizational systems of the cerebral and perceptual worlds.
Along these lines, Carol Mode says she uses repeated elements to “represent slight changes in successive moments in time”; she seeks to “play [these] against each other in a complex installation.” The decay of surfaces over time is evident throughout her paintings, as is the shifting of perspective while observing a single object or shape. Her sentiments for joining decay and order create an array so ambiguous that the idea of clarity itself seems called into doubt. On the other hand, works like “Duality” and “Vapor,” both from 1998, visually integrate pattern, surface, and color in a way that brings forth a mandala-like clarity. Such impressions do not come instantly but only after repeated visits, after the imprinted layers on the paintings’ surfaces have a chance to resonate in the viewer’s mind.
Emily, whose graduate training was at Yale, uses a far different strategy from Carol. It’s a shame that she couldn’t bring examples of her sculptural installations in Austin, Texas, to the gallery; instead, the show places an emphasis on photos and collages that document these works. Thus it becomes difficult to judge them, much like viewing preliminary drawings for a finished painting.
However, one recent installation piece, entitled “Hay Swing,” is included, offering a more definitive idea of the younger Mode’s approach. Her choice of statements includes quotes from T.S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse, a Robin Williams speech from The Fisher-King, and Walter Starkie’s critique of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Like the photo-documents, these texts make her work more formidable for an average viewer to penetratesome would say they add gravity where none exists. At the same time, they serve as verbal representations of her own creative process, in which she wrings poetic metaphors from simple materials.
“Hay Swing” reifies Starkie’s “knight of the spirit who is striving to soar aloft, and a squire who strives with might and main to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground.” Set at the end of a constructed passageway lined in black, the swing consists of cables attached to the ceiling, which suspend a cheap throne of egg-carton foam and tan-stained fabric laid over a hay bale. Tied by its arms to the cables is a goldenrod-colored sweater. Below the throne is a scrim-covered box with a reflecting mirror, onto which is projected a video of straw clumps. This effectively creates the illusion of another hay bale, which appears to “swing,” given the zooming and panning of the video footage. Naturally, viewers should connect the ‘soaring aloft and firmly planting,’ but this metaphor is not altogether satisfying: The camera sways ever so slightly (for two hours!), promising flight but frustrating the viewer’s effort to will it into being.
Later, I fathomed another metaphor here, connected to the medieval “science” of alchemy. The revelation came while thinking about her photos, her full-sized gilded figures in Austin (which hang upside-down or suspended from the ceiling), and her Sarratt floor installation of gold mylar with two concrete figures. Together with “Hay Swing,” these works embody the alchemical notion of turning base materials into goldweaving straw, as the tale of Rumplestiltskin suggestswith the ultimate goal of rising from base form to godly form.
Her gilt figures might well have ascended from this hay throne: It’s in joining all these elements that her work rises to the mythopoetic level suggested by her choice of quotations. It reminded me of how Eliot similarly concludes his poem Preludes: “Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;/The worlds revolve like ancient women/Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”
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