Foreign Exchange 

Diverse exhibition offers Nashvillians rare exposure to European minimalist sensibilities

Diverse exhibition offers Nashvillians rare exposure to European minimalist sensibilities

Far From the Sea: October Foundation 1998-2003

Through May 20

Vanderbilt University

Fine Arts Gallery

For information, call 322-0605 or visit www.sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/gallery

The October Foundation doesn't have a permanent exhibition space, so when the work isn't being shown, a lot of it lives under my bed," admits Peter Foolen, with a candid lack of pretension that immediately disarms. The Dutch artist studied printmaking and graphic design at art school in Eindhoven, Holland, before setting up his own commercial printmaking studio in the late 1970s. At that time, Foolen also became a member of the Peninsula Foundation—an artist-run space in Eindhoven for those frustrated by having to depend on local galleries to show their work. Over the next 11 years, Foolen's output as a printmaker declined as he began to spend more time facilitating the creative processes of others. In 1998, Foolen took the logical next step and established a foundation of his own. With the help of art historian and typographer Tjeu Teeuwen and artist and printmaker Sjra Marx, the October Foundation (or simply "October") was born. Now with greater artistic control and freedom, Foolen was able to attract and gather around him a much broader range of international artists, each of whom shared his interest in collaborative art-making and was consistently drawn to similar themes and subjects: the sea, nature, poetry and typography. Since that time, editions produced by October have been purchased by galleries all over the world, including London's Tate Gallery, New York's MoMA, the Getty in L.A., Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and other museums and archives in Miami, the Netherlands, and Germany.

"Far From the Sea," October's exhibition currently on display at Vanderbilt's Fine Arts Gallery, is essentially a retrospective. Almost every significant work produced by the artists associated with the foundation in its six-year history is included. Those artists are loosely linked by their working styles and their favored subject matter: They prefer to work outdoors rather than in a studio and their work celebrates the natural world in some way. There is, predictably, an extremely diverse range of art on display—photography, lithography, drawings, silk-screen prints, poetry, books, journals, portfolios and other limited-edition publications.

"Everyone's so compartmentalized these days," says Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery director Joseph Mella. "It's the function of an art gallery such as this one to bring together artists normally outside of each other's creative sphere." Inevitably, there are dangers of a lack of thematic unity or focus in such an undertaking. However, those concerns are dispelled the moment the viewer enters the gallery space. The exhibition demonstrates a shared commitment to clarity of artistic expression and simplicity of conceptual execution that satisfies on a deep level. This is a quiet, contemplative show—not usually the hallmark of a blockbuster. Yet to dismiss "Far From the Sea" on these grounds would be to miss out on something truly special. "This show opens new doors," says Mella. "It's the kind of art one couldn't normally expect to have access to outside of a major city such as New York. It truly gives the viewer an 'out of the box' experience."

It's hard to argue with such claims. There are many exquisite pieces here that merit a close, thoughtful and sustained look. A collection of works by Hans Waanders offers one of the most intimate and charming experiences in the show. Waanders was fascinated by the kingfisher, which became his artistic muse. He pays homage to the object of his affection in photographs, stamps, watercolors, collage and hardcover books. The delightful publication "Perches" presents a series of photographs of overhanging twigs and sticks suspended above various bodies of water—places where the kingfisher might choose to alight. There's artlessness to moving sticks into position in order to do this, but no matter; there is a naïveté to this work that is beguiling. Collaborator Tjeu Teeuwen takes Waanders' reverential respect of the bird to the logical extreme by creating a fictitious heavenly constellation called Alcedo atthis ("kingfisher" in Latin) and presenting it in a printed leaflet along with the more familiar constellations. Created in memory of Waanders, who died in June 2001, it is a particularly beautiful and poignant work.

By contrast, one of the quirkiest and most delightful pieces on show has to be "Shoes and Boots walked by Hamish Fulton." The work is a whimsical and refreshing study of hiking shoes, sneakers and other sturdy walking footwear, photographed up close from underneath with remnants of various landscapes still adhering to the soles. Another standout is Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark's simple but affecting hardcover book, "One Hundred Scottish Places," which possesses a quiet poetic minimalism that will seduce even the most resistant imagination. Clark's "Glade" also sticks stubbornly in the mind; a simple enamel text panel tacitly invites the viewer to take his or her own imaginative journey. It's deceptively simple, but again, highly effective when viewed in a context where profound meaning (visual or textual) has been playfully hidden in works of quiet beauty and charm. "This is work that has a strong intellectual component," says Mella. "But it's also sublime. This show represents a marriage of language, nature and science—basically, how the world around us operates."

"Far From the Sea" is an exhibition that the viewer needs to come to without the filter of expectation. There is plenty to intrigue and enchant if one is willing to suspend a preconception or two and actually collaborate in the art-making process. There are many text-only pieces in the exhibition that require the viewer to create his or her own mental images based on words alone. For the most part, the text-only pieces are extremely successful. Ian Whittlesea's "Henry David Thoreau" is surprisingly affecting: The bold white text "WALDEN POND, MASSACHUSETTS" floats on a liquid black background and arguably stirs the wilderness imagination far more than, say, a literal photographic representation of Thoreau's hangout. "But [it's] not for everyone," admits Mella. "Although visible in Europe, this art is not widely known in the United States. That's a shame but, thankfully, this is the advantage of working in a university context—we can experiment and bring art before the people of Nashville that would never otherwise come into their worldview."

The experiment works. There's hardly a piece here that doesn't hit deep in some way, despite the lack of visual fireworks or superficial thrills. From the huge print of moody lilac skies by Teeuwen at the exhibit's entrance to the tiniest details of Kees Verbeek's self-referentially small letterpress edition, "In Actual Size," there are countless treasures here. True, this is a serious show, but not one that takes itself too seriously. Graham Rich's folded card, "Floating an art work past a heron," injects a note of surreal humor, as does Jenny Holzer's text piece "Truisms"—a matter-of-fact list of universal (from the artist's perspective at least) truths that range from the self-evidently banal to the provocative to the profound. Douglas Gordon's polar "Laughing-Crying" represents another intriguing diversion, with its retrograde and mirror-image text. Then, thanks to the inspired curatorial counterpoint evident throughout, the viewer encounters the sublime once again in the shape of Richard Long's silk screen "Throwing Snow in a Circle," or Sjra Marx's duo of antique-feel etchings, "Sea of Stones" and "Sea of Sand."

"There's so much 'in your face' art today," says Mella. "It's refreshing to see art of such understated strength and beauty." Undeniably, restraint and self-effacement characterize the show, underlining the European origins of most of the artists and reminding the viewer that the Atlantic Ocean is not the only thing that separates North America and Europe. In the end, it comes down to an essentially different artistic sensibility, which will either leave the viewer mesmerized or nonplussed. Though the collection of works doesn't give up its secrets easily, "Far From the Sea" heaps rewards on the discriminating and patient viewer who is looking for something a little different and is willing to allow this marriage of photography, text and printmaking to carry him or her away. This exhibition lodges itself behind the eyes and stays there. The subtle echoes of these pieces will endure when the memories of splashier shows have long since faded away.

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