Emmi Whitehorse and Don Redman
Opening reception Saturday, January 25, 6:00-8:00 pm
Essay by Susie Kalil
At a time when technology continues to develop exponentially and biological research brings into question just what it means to be human, the tension between feeling and intellect becomes acute. But a heightened awareness of nature can awaken the spiritual impulse in us, remind us of the sublime grandeur of creation, the miracle and enigma of existence.
Earth & Sky, the exquisite installation of major new works by Emmi Whitehorse and Don Redman at Kirk Hopper Fine Art aims to lift us out of our dulling complacencies. The decision to enter unfamiliar territory means accepting the possibility of losing our way. What happens when we step outside our usual environment only to find that we cannot go back, or that once we return nothing seems the same? Co-curated by Susie Kalil and Laura Fain, Earth & Sky asks us to trust, to let go, and give ourselves over to the radiant energy.
Don Redman has created a sculpture that is as emotionally charged as it is formally rigorous. Suspended from the gallery skylights by steel cables and composed of translucent mica sheets interwoven with strips of 70-year-old cured maple, the luminous 20-foot work literally seems to transcend the bounds of earth and exist somewhere between the light and the ground. Immediate and experiential, the provocative sculpture aspires to a kind of numinous purity, even as it investigates the junction between ruin and reclamation, natural decay and rejuvenation.
To enter the gallery is to feel a kinship with ancient working rhythms, with totem builders of earlier societies, with ancient memories of deep time. Redman, a Houston artist who has lived and worked in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for over two decades, was profoundly moved by an initial encounter with the historic mica window at the Acoma Pueblo, the multistory Sky City that rises some 400 feet from the valley floor. Legend has it that the Spanish saw the sun reflecting off the mica and thought there was gold in the Pueblos. With that in mind, Redman's piece seems grounded in the physical recollection of primordial essences, subjective states beyond rational recall.
The seductive quality of the sculpture, however, stems not only from its presence as an entity but also from a keen sense of apt relations between material and form. It's also a matter of direct perception. Redman encourages viewers to experience passage around and underneath the work, eliciting immediate responses of touch, sight, movement and smell. We're reminded of a distant journey into the desert plains, of nature as an ecstatic living presence. Parts of the sculpture take on a strange and wild energy, twisting or wrapping themselves around each other and creating a vortex. The swelling force and radiant shadows seem phantasmagorically alivea beast roused from slumber, shaking its scaly body, a bat flapping its wings, a fish swimming mid-stream. At the same time, the piece becomes a counterpointing medley of straight lines, volume and plane, container and contained, horizontal and vertical that resolves itself in stark serenity. Redman speaks to the solitary viewer in each of us who is moved by the stars, heavens and winds. Then he reminds us that those things touch a deeper desire. It's as if he unfolds layers of the apparent richness within ourselves, returning us to a realm of great, raw, objectless longing.
Although Redman began to create, draw and sculpt as a young boy, he first learned to work with steel from his father, a longtime welder in the shipbuilding industry. After attending the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Houston and the Art Institute of San Francisco, Redman apprenticed with internationally acclaimed artists Luis Jimenez, James Surls and Salvatore Scarpitta. Over the decades, however, he developed a sculptural language that aimed to push the boundaries of the traditional static object. Redman designed and fabricated large-scale metal works that harness or move with the forces of wind and light. Using a variety of mediasteel, fiberglass, stone, metal, dacron, wood and LED technologyhe produced kinetic sculptures that melded art, engineering and physics in a taut balance of gravity and vibrating energy. More recently, Redman incorporated strategic-cut, cascading or stepped elements to create movement with sunlight. The steel diptych, Shadow Light Lens, on view in the KHFA sculpture courtyard, changes continuously throughout the day, month and year depending on the arc of the sun. The light is tangible; it enters as rays of the sun from outside the steel frame or suggests snaking currents of air. Redman's work has a reserve of meaning that seems to open very slowly, due partly to the extreme compression of the pieces, which strip away everything inessential and magnify the potency of each lyrical form or shape. Taken together, the sculptures in Earth & Sky concoct both an alchemist's workshop and a dystopian future.
Earth & Sky illuminates how a place can stake its claim on an artist's psyche and soul. It's no coincidence that the installation harkens to a bygone era when artists regarded themselves more as priests or shamans than as professionals. The works at KHFA catch something in the air, addressing environmental fragilities and narrative entanglements that stretch across time and multiple realities. The works invade our space, provoke bodily reactions and invite a range of associations. Earth & Sky snares our eyes, hits us in the gut, and transforms us. It builds a sense of relationship: to one's soul, one person to another, to many people, to creation of the whole.
Scientists argue that we are in a new geologic phase, the Anthropocene epocha time when humans now change the Earth more than all the planet's natural processes combined. As Emmi Whitehorse sees it, in keeping with the Navajo creation story, we are presently in the fifth worldthe Glittering Worlda time of glittering technology and influences from outside the sacred land entrusted to them by the Holy People. Accordingly, she experiences this world as a mingling of the profoundly traditional with the alluringly new.
Whereas the Glittering World was supposed to represent the most advanced state of human evolution, Whitehorse's recent works underscore the concept of transience and fragility, and stand as enticing reminders of the consequences of inaction to the environmental crisis. In her quest to offer us a sense of place, Whitehorse expresses the mythic need for orientation in a boundless universe. Her paintings, which combine oil, pencil and chalk evoke Dinetah, the homeland. They are stimulated by the artist's mystical conjuring of place, her instinctive feel of an untamed land. Drawing upon her life experiences and Navajo heritage, the images tell the story of an intimate knowledge of the Southwest landscape over time. Whitehorse has not only pondered the environment, but has experienced it with all her physical and spiritual beingas a child, she played and tended sheep in the New Mexico land. She has continued to walk it, while making connections between abstract properties of time, distance, speed and perception, in addition to the linking of geographic points. Her ethereal paintingshot pinks, iridescent blues, mint greenshave a hands-on specificity, yet call up a range of sources, including archaeology, maps, the cosmos, dreams, as well as glyphs and symbols: animal tracks, bursting seed pods, wavy plant tendrils, rustling leaves, concentric rings of water and vertical "portals" or entry points. Their heated glow and scintillating power owe to Whitehorse's ability to summon so many worlds from deep within her own.
For Earth & Sky, she has produced two 8-foot canary yellow panels on which are applied marks, scrawls and forms, as well as sheets of mica that reverberate in a precarious kinetic balance. Here, the translucent material serves as window, mirror, weapon, or toolperhaps a lifeline of energy, perhaps a conduit of decadent excess. To that end, Whitehorse's incandescent paintings teeter on the brink of the unknowable, at the outer limits of the imagination where the real vaporizes into the infinite.
For Whitehorse, yellow represents a psychological neutral ground that suffuses the environment with both energy and calm. Yellow is pervasive in the New Mexico landscape, from the enchanting, brilliant sun to the vibrant cottonwood trees, chamisa and flowering bushes. Yet of all the primary colors, yellow is the most inconsistent in symbolism according to context and range of hue. Connections between yellow skin and fear of disease account for yellow corresponding to the color of cowardice and quarantine. Yellow is the color of dying leaves and overripe fruit. However, the color has the highest value in Buddhist countries through its link with the saffron robes of monks, which represent humility and separation from a material society. For the Navajo, yellow is one of the four Sacred Colors, rising in the West at dusk.
To engage these paintings is to have our attention shift to the space between our bodies and the variously opaque/translucent surfaces, which range from luminous shimmer to mysteriously warm reflectivity. The luster evokes those motes of dust that dance in the beams of sunlight, which gave us the sense as children that we were actually able to see air. At times, the paintings seemingly spill out of their frames to energize the many points at which vision and the real world cross paths, dovetailing in perceptions that inflect one another's fleeting movements. Whitehorse's responsiveness to nature seems to have intensified in these worksthe mica and formal peculiarities give them an otherworldly presence, creating a hypnotic, transcendent, meditative spirit.
Shadows languorously play across the wall and throughout the space in Earth & Sky, traveling in a kind of slow-motion promenade. Not only are we part of the installation, but our reflections are too. Earth & Sky seeks to resuscitate a declining sense of the present, a waning capacity for imagination and wonder. In the works of Redman and Whitehorse, luminous planes emit a sensation of suspension, of indeterminate hovering. The effect is both theatrical and intimate, anxious and expectantas if the humming vibrancy could be the prelude to some majestic vision.