Parallel journeys: Marie Lorenz at the Albright-Knox and Max Collins at the Castellani August 2016

On View at Albright-Knox and Castellani

Parallel journeys: Marie Lorenz at the Albright-Knox and Max Collins at the Castellani

Production still from Marie Lorenz’s Ezekia (2014)

Production still from Marie Lorenz’s Ezekia (2014)

Photos courtesy of Max Collins and Marie Lorenz

Sometimes it’s not the flashy headliner exhibitions that linger in an art enthusiast’s mind. Occasionally, a more unassuming one quietly sneaks up and plants a seed that takes root. Two such shows now on view in different museums share a number of commonalities. Each is a journey of sorts, equally enigmatic, both invoking ritual. 

Tides and passages

Ezekia, by New York-based artist Marie Lorenz, is a five channel video installation located in the Gallery for New Media in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It’s an outgrowth of the artist’s ongoing Tide and Current Taxi Project, in which she explores the waterways and inaccessible islands of New York City in rowboats she designs and builds out of reclaimed materials. Passengers join the artist for a variety of personal reasons, and act as rowing crew as they navigate the coastline. Each trip coincides with a strong tidal current in the harbor that helps push the boat. Lorenz is particularly enamored with tide cycles, which dramatically alter the water’s edge and distribute flotsam and jetsam along the seashore. The five projected videos of different sizes that comprise Ezekia were shot on one or more such trips.

Included in the installation, along with the videos, are two sculptures made to look like dock pilings mounted on white bases. Without the wood grain surface patterns—which, according to the wall text, are made from charcoal rubbings of actual pilings—these cylindrical forms of different heights would look like reductive works of minimalist art. Shrouded in the darkness as they are, the sculptures feel a bit like an afterthought, despite their thematic relevance.

Wall text describes the work as “a fragmented story of a group of women explorers who, at some point in the not-too-distant future, navigate and make sense of a seemingly destroyed coastline.” This red herring description should be taken with a giant grain of sea salt. There is nothing that suggests a discernable narrative, or a different time setting. Ironically, if we didn’t know this was New York City coastline, we might mistake much of it for pristine natural habitat. Faces of people are never seen. There’s no dialogue and no suggestion that the separate videos are even linked, other than thematically. They could represent five separate events. Viewers needn’t look for a story, and endeavoring to do so might distract from the work’s evocative appeal.

What we do see in the approximately six-minute sequence are dramatic low angle shots of people wading through shallow shoreline marsh or tall reed grass. The audio track contributes to an eerie ambiance, seemingly combining the sounds of water lapping against a hollow surface with an ethereal whistling. On one screen, women wade out, pushing their wooden boat off the shore into deeper water. Another shows a single passenger slowly navigating a vessel through a sprawling assembly of rotted pilings, the remnants of now forgotten development. It all feels very purposeful, but to what end remains a mystery.

Lorenz employs a variety of devices to achieve unique and sometimes dizzying camera angles. She attaches a camera to the end of something resembling a long fishing pole, which she holds vertically and spins above—a kind of poor-woman’s camera crane. One spectacular sequence consists of a single shot as a camera is apparently attached to an unseen helium balloon tethered by a cable. The camera lifts off as the boat and its passengers slowly recede. The effect is one of isolation in the open sea.

One video straddles a corner of the room and serves as the work’s defining sequence. In the sandy soil, the artist has made an improvised henge incorporating a variety of gathered detritus—some natural, some human-made—washed ashore by the tide. Four women stand ritualistically at even points in the ring as the camera swiftly circles around them from above (via “fish pole” crane). It’s a beachcomber’s mystical rite, but a rite of what? Lorenz doesn’t intend for us to know; her purpose is to convey her personal experience of the cyclic interaction between land and water through journey and mock ritual.

Installation shots from Max Collins’s Natural Processes

Water and fire

Max Collins: Natural Processes is the latest of the Castellani Museum’s TopSpin exhibitions spotlighting emerging regional artists. Collins is known locally for his many black and white photo-based paper murals, wheat-pasted on buildings throughout the city. This work is far removed from those, though paper and paste play essential roles. Natural Processes is actually something of a sequel to an earlier installation. Like Lorenz, Collins is engaged in an ongoing process, but the current show imparts a sense of finality, as if this is the conclusion, the final curtain of a long performance.

Last July, Collins created an elaborate installation as part of a small group exhibition at Hi-Temp Fabrication in Buffalo. In that show he built a towering cylindrical structure made of tree limbs wrapped in white paper and illuminated internally. It glowed in the dark like a makeshift Japanese lantern. That work, and what followed it, was a response to the tragic death of the artist’s girlfriend.

Video footage from Max Collins’s Hi-Temp Fabrication show

In the current show, Collins attaches whitewashed weathered boards at various angles, along with a few tree limbs wrapped in white paper, onto the walls of the Castellani Gallery. The sparsely hung boards and limbs create a peculiar ambiance: faintly ceremonial, but like Lorenz’s pilings, a bit extraneous, as if their primarily purpose is to fill space.

The wrapped tree limbs, produced using his signature wheat paste method, are reminiscent of the effect the artist Christo achieved with his early fabric-wrapped objects. The white coverings simultaneously conceal and reveal, masking the branch’s surface, while heightening viewer awareness of its structure. Like Lorenz, Collins engages others in his work. The exhibition catalog explains that he employed students from Niagara University and various regional primary and secondary schools in an ongoing process of creating the wrapped branches.

The focal point and crux of the installation is at one end of the gallery. Several paper-wrapped tree limbs lean against the wall, which has also been entirely sealed under roughly applied white paper. Smaller tree branches are trapped underneath the wrinkled surface, creating a furrowed effect. The result is a wall that seems more organic than architectural, with the papered-over branches and wrinkles creating a pattern suggestive of capillaries. Onto this, Collins projects a video that includes footage of the earlier Hi-Temp show, and here is where we discover that this exhibition documents a rite of passage.

A large comfortable couch provides a relaxing seat for wall viewing. Restful ambient music creates a meditative atmosphere. The projection itself has soft ghostly edges; its images are almost entirely black and white, with infrequent bits of muted color contributing to a solemn tone. Slow sweeping shots of the earlier Hi-Temp exhibition with its central structure glowing in the darkness are followed by ones of the artist driving a vehicle in the chill of winter. This is intercut with extreme slow motion shots of paper-wrapped tree limbs dropping into the water below—and rising again. In the middle of a calm stretch of the Niagara River, a boat approaches a massive floating pyre of the same sort of wrapped branches. Someone in the boat, presumably Collins, throws a burning branch onto the nest of paper and wood, and an enormous flame erupts into the evening sky.

It’s clear now that the white wrappings are shrouds; the gathering of dead branches, ceremonially swathed as if to preserve them, is a ritualistic catharsis. Trees grow and die. Something is made, then destroyed. Collins echoes the cycle of life in ways that are manifest in nature. All things pass and we struggle in our way to honor them. Even the artist’s public murals—paper photographs pasted on exterior walls—erode and fade with time.

Like Lorenz, Collins employs a waterway as a metaphor. For Lorenz, the tide cycle is like the sea breathing in and out, depositing with each breath evidence of a slow death. Collins uses cycles of nature, and the river itself, to reflect life and death. Both engage in and document ritual acts along their individual journeys. Each in its own way is memorable.

Bruce Adams is an educator, artist, arts activist, and Spree’s art critic.

Video footage from Max Collins’s Hi-Temp Fabrication show

In the current show, Collins attaches whitewashed weathered boards at various angles, along with a few tree limbs wrapped in white paper, onto the walls of the Castellani Gallery. The sparsely hung boards and limbs create a peculiar ambiance: faintly ceremonial, but like Lorenz’s pilings, a bit extraneous, as if their primarily purpose is to fill space.

The wrapped tree limbs, produced using his signature wheat paste method, are reminiscent of the effect the artist Christo achieved with his early fabric-wrapped objects. The white coverings simultaneously conceal and reveal, masking the branch’s surface, while heightening viewer awareness of its structure. Like Lorenz, Collins engages others in his work. The exhibition catalog explains that he employed students from Niagara University and various regional primary and secondary schools in an ongoing process of creating the wrapped branches.

The focal point and crux of the installation is at one end of the gallery. Several paper-wrapped tree limbs lean against the wall, which has also been entirely sealed under roughly applied white paper. Smaller tree branches are trapped underneath the wrinkled surface, creating a furrowed effect. The result is a wall that seems more organic than architectural, with the papered-over branches and wrinkles creating a pattern suggestive of capillaries. Onto this, Collins projects a video that includes footage of the earlier Hi-Temp show, and here is where we discover that this exhibition documents a rite of passage.

A large comfortable couch provides a relaxing seat for wall viewing. Restful ambient music creates a meditative atmosphere. The projection itself has soft ghostly edges; its images are almost entirely black and white, with infrequent bits of muted color contributing to a solemn tone. Slow sweeping shots of the earlier Hi-Temp exhibition with its central structure glowing in the darkness are followed by ones of the artist driving a vehicle in the chill of winter. This is intercut with extreme slow motion shots of paper-wrapped tree limbs dropping into the water below—and rising again. In the middle of a calm stretch of the Niagara River, a boat approaches a massive floating pyre of the same sort of wrapped branches. Someone in the boat, presumably Collins, throws a burning branch onto the nest of paper and wood, and an enormous flame erupts into the evening sky.

It’s clear now that the white wrappings are shrouds; the gathering of dead branches, ceremonially swathed as if to preserve them, is a ritualistic catharsis. Trees grow and die. Something is made, then destroyed. Collins echoes the cycle of life in ways that are manifest in nature. All things pass and we struggle in our way to honor them. Even the artist’s public murals—paper photographs pasted on exterior walls—erode and fade with time.

Like Lorenz, Collins employs a waterway as a metaphor. For Lorenz, the tide cycle is like the sea breathing in and out, depositing with each breath evidence of a slow death. Collins uses cycles of nature, and the river itself, to reflect life and death. Both engage in and document ritual acts along their individual journeys. Each in its own way is memorable.

Bruce Adams is an educator, artist, arts activist, and Spree’s art critic.