IMPLODING MEANING

The Palmer Gallery

Left to right: Rosanne Walsh, Monica Church (curator), Meg Hitchcock (moderator), M Pettee Olsen, and Michael Oatman,

Gallery Talk, January 27th, 2023

Thursday, January 19 – Wednesday, March 01, 2023

The receptions was held on: Thu, January 26, 2023, 5 pm – 7 pm

IMPLODING MEANING: Tale-less Tales About Absolutely Nothing And Everything In Between

As my work concerns the underpinnings of perception, I was thrilled when Monica Church asked me to participate in IMPLODING MEANING at The Palmer Gallery at Vassar. I am equally honored to have been invited to write my reflections on the exhibition for Art Curious-Contemporary.

by M Pettee Olsen, for Art Curious Contemporary, November 23, 2023

Artists are tasked with “embedding thought in material,” suggests co-chief art critic at the New York Times Roberta Smith. It seems to me that this embedding of thought should be done with the artist’s sense of the times and the unique lens through which they view the world and make their art. Yet, for some of us, in a world more saturated in shared published opinion than at any time in history, upending meaning has become a concern in our art-making. During this time, when the cacophony of opinion and amygdala-baiting has achieved tremendous and equal volume and reach, and the exchange of truth for falsehood appears acceptable, I approach my work as an artist. It is in this context, that I see myself situated in the exhibition IMPLODING MEANING, at Vassar’s Palmer Gallery. 

In 1966, when Frank Stella, said about his work, “What you see is what you see,”  he was referring to surfaces, composition, color, and so on, and the notion that his works be seen as objects.  Yet, a few decades later, his statement seems to have stretched well beyond objecthood and increasingly to metaphor, as embodied in his work of the late 80s and early 90s. The Moby Dick Series, in particular, comes to mind. I recall the massive bas-relief project created with layers of lithographed and screen-printed painterly marks and geometries, as I had a minor role in assisting with it.  Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s epic novel, in which Captain Ahab grapples with the great white whale, a mutable representation of good, evil, moral consequences, and life itself, we the reader, become witness to the terrible result of Ahab’s mad rejection of his own better nature. Clearly, in using such a title, Stella’s notions suggest looking beyond painted surfaces when he created the series.  

Fast-forward roughly thirty years, and our sense of “what you see is what you see” continues to have shifted, or perhaps dissolved altogether. Significantly, WHO is making the work, and WHAT materials they are using, have been fashionable for at least the last few decades. Yet, I turn again, to Melville’s Captain Ahab, “Look ye, man, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features.” Could that ‘reasoning thing’ be you or me? 

In my view, this show is a clarifying lens through which HOW one views is a critical, if not the most critical way of looking at art today. It both transcends and includes former concerns. 

When, in 2018 At the Tate Britain, during an interview with Charline Von Heyl, regarding her Hirschorn Exhibition, Snake Eyes, the unpinnable painter stated, “Abstraction is not only about no meaning, it’s about imploding meaning.” When I heard von Heyl’s statement It resonated with me. To me, it suggests an inward collapsing of our expressive, free-speech culture, under the weight of discordant voices in our larger human culture. Imploding also carries with it notions of what I am after in my work — in questioning the nature of perception and therefore the dubious nature of any sort of ultimate or absolute Truth embedded in official histories. For me, the act of questioning the nature of seeing is important. It takes the place of sketches and storied ideas as I enter the studio. All of this is to say that the changeable nature of HOW we look at art might be a further consideration through which we see or choose not to attach meaning. This self-awareness is something that we artists hope comes after the first eye-grabbing moments of looking. 

“Abstraction is not only about ‘no meaning,’ it’s also about imploding meaning.”  

Charline von Heyl

Curator’s Statement

Imploding Meaning became a focal point to discuss how our current work is read and where it fits into contemporary art discourse. The works on view offer important ways in which geometric abstraction, gestural abstraction, collage, installation, and non-verbal storytelling (with no beginning, middle, or end) are being explored today. This show allows each exhibiting artist to center their work among peers and explore commonalities as well as differences.

Each of the works on view has their own visual dialect: 

M Pettee Olsen’s paintings are physically vigorous, gestural abstractions with superimposed rectilinear shapes that represent human thoughts, values, and meanings that are imposed upon a work of art, and beyond art — the world.

Michael Oatman’s grid of circles containing 100 years of magazine pictures becomes an analog Instagram, creating a visually immersive timescale where viewers are invited to digest “issues of racism, class boundaries, and misogyny.”

Rosanne Walsh combines objects from nature, and images pulled from magazines with domestic items like pharmaceutical inserts and hangers combined in intimate art assemblages.

I am playing a dual role, as both exhibiting artist and curator and for the first time, allowing for wry humor to surface in my work with direct references to objects.

Each body of work relies on how we collect, organize, and imbue these materials with a poetic sense of meaning or its upending. Many of the materials come directly from the fabric of our daily lives, while others suggest the slippery nature of materiality itself with the latest inventions in paint pigments. For some of us, the works that we make have content because of WHAT they are made with and WHO makes them. For others, the subjective and sensory qualities of content suggest a universality based on a common humanity.

This exhibition, while not singular in approach, does have a throughline of an emboldened openness to interpretation, evoking experience and a call to simply behold the work and the world. 

Indeed, a cool formalism is not the feeling emanating from the Palmer Gallery walls. When one enters the gallery there’s a sense of what Patti Smith calls an “exploding collage of our culture.”

Through the main doors of the gallery, a viewer is confronted with Red Turn with Value Scales.

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It’s Really Not Funny, and Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining, by Monica Church

Monica Church’s sailcloth works are rectangular and stapled to stretcher bars emphasizing that they be read as ‘paintings’. The artist leaves the almost transparent wide woven areas of the sail to let the wall they are hanging on become part of the assemblages’ color. This incidental color and shadow cast by the sail are played against the reflective pigments Church surreptitiously uses on select parts of the sailcloth. There are oblique references to the sky in an otherwise hard-geometric work with rounded shapes stitched in at the top of the composition. The work feels formalist until small glints of paint register as the titular ‘silver lining’ yearned for in life when things are often shifting, and difficult. This nubivagant theme runs through her large pieces in the show. Smaller works have a quiet weight and sense of intimacy about them.

Hello Gorgeous, by Monica Church

Until recently, I believed that non-objective painting was not about nothing and that abstraction explored formal issues like geometry, color, gesture, and surface quality, as well as non-verbal storytelling. I’ve seen that it is not singular but contains a throughline of emboldened openness to interpretation.
In this new work, I move beyond exploring formal issues by interrupting the surface with sail material rather than traditional supports and adhering actual objects to the surface. Through the process of making my work, I succumb to that particular piece’s insistence on having its own architecture and story.

— Monica Church
Uncle Jimmy Waitin for Bacon, by Rosanne Walsh

Twists and Turns with Value Scale came from a body of work that explored the different ways imposed value could be read in a piece. The painting evolved after I returned from a residency at the UCROSS Foundation, where I was continuing the exploration of value scales floating above or embedded in the layers of the painting.

Twists and Turns with Value Scale, by M Pettee Olsen

I do not repeat the use of visual devices in the same order for the same function. I am concerned with what to do to achieve a sense of impermanence and the questionable nature of perception.  

M Pettee Olsen
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Monica Church’s Mardi Gras, (left), No Sweets for the Sweating, (center), by Rosanne Walsh, and Return to Raw, (right), by M Pettee Olsen

No Sweets for the Sweating (above center) thematically addresses religion in partnership with economics as social control. Walsh creates stark reimaginings of labor, power, and belief. They carry notions of female identity as being almost religiously fetishized, manipulated, and until now, unseen and under-recognized. On the starkly white walls of the gallery, their presence reads both as confessional and as declaration.

Below, M Pettee Olsen’s Red Turn + Value Scale, Painting as gestural dance between unbounded awareness and imposing thought.

M Pettee Olsen’s Red Turn with Value Scales, synthetic and luminous paint on canvas

Michael Oatman’s immersive installation, culled from his vast cataloged library of images, is composed of seemingly random arrangments, that can be reorganized according to the exhibition space. Oatman’s art suggests the perennial and long view of human behavior and the field of history-making. (See Imitation of Life, below)

(left), M Pettee Olsen, Return to Raw, synthetic polymer and interference paint on part-raw and part-prepared canvas, 2023
(right), Michael Oatman, Imitation of Life, or, the Fossil Record, 2020, 3250 images from historic magazine clippings, 1920-2020 (LIFE, LOOK, TIME, MAD Magazine, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, Jet, Ebony, Playboy, Collier’s, Better Homes and Gardens, Man’s World, Rolling Stone, The London Illustrated Time, Country Gentleman), recycled paper and cellophane CD sleeves, tape, binder clips, thumbtacks, (complete installation 480″ x 120″)

The “now” is a kind of weird concept in the work because I feel like it’s always been a continuum from a certain point.  

Michael Oatman
Michael Oatman, Imitation of Life, 2020 (Detail)

For 35 years, I have been gathering material culture, ordering it via personal taxonomies, and recasting new narratives from archives into meta-pictures and physical environments. Imitation of Life, or, The Fossil Record (IOL) is a wall installation presenting historical imagery clipped from 100 years’ worth of printed magazines. Drawn from my personal archive of collage material, IOL features pictures primarily from Life magazine. The imagery runs from color and black-and-white photojournalism to advertisements and infographics. In complete contrast to my usual collage sources (book reproductions of color, hand-painted illustrations), these photos and graphics were culled from 30 years of rejected clipping material.
The title, Imitation of Life refers not only to the iconic Life magazine (50 percent of the sourced imagery), but also to important films bearing the same name: the 1934 version (directed by John Stahl) and the 1959 re-make by Douglas Sirk. One of my favorite films, it was introduced to me by fellow artist Dawn Clements (1958–2018) over 25 years ago. The Douglas Sirk version dealt both directly and poetically with issues of racism, class boundaries, and misogyny. Some of the captions from the photos I clipped (say, from 1968) could describe events of the present day with no loss of accuracy. For example, the media images of the death of George Floyd are poignantly echoed back in time.
This salvage project intersects two dying forms of media: the magazine and the CD. Instagram influenced the organization of the material, but the immersive scale of a movie screen took it out of the hand/eye focus, creating a vast field of possible portals. I think of IOL as a “paper Internet,” where viewers can make connections to popular culture via personal recollections.

Michael Oatman

M Pettee Olsen, Return to Raw, synthetic, and luminous paint on canvas

Rosanne Walsh, Crudely Bound, mixed media assemblage

In the piece Crudely Bound The reference to a fetishized fertility goddess and butterfly are related as contrasting signifiers of freedom and repression. The bill envelope suggests the systems that control through material power. The dried earth — Mother Earth — is depleted, yet still resilient and eternally strong. All these seemingly disconnected thoughts needed to be bound together and so I have sewed them. As I sewed, I was initially struck by the crudeness of my stitch work, but then decided to emphasize it, leaving the loose threads un-trimmed. I thought about the term crude and the binding that I was doing and the title ‘Crudely Bound’ was born, as a description of how women have been bound throughout history, and In some countries with the very tools we have been historically trained to use — the needle and thread.  

Rosanne Walsh

Rosanne Walsh’s Celestial Grounding

is concerned with the feminine

and the reinterpretation of nature

from resource to life source.

I used an array of salvaged images and objects to create the work in the gallery. Composing with originally unrelated, but equally weathered objects, I embed personal histories related to traditional women’s tools of labor. In this way, I am upending a patriarchal point of view.

Rosanne Walsh

(center) Michael Oatman’s Ook

I compress spontaneously choreographed moves into flat, painted illusionistic space, playing with notions of perception and time. I am painting the dance in my bones, a ballet that is 3.6 billion years in the making and filtered through a distinct lens that exhists from the time I build the stretcher bars to my last mark on a painting.

— M Pettee Olsen

About the Artists

Born and raised in Middlebury, VT, abstract artist Monica Church has lived in New York’s Hudson Valley for over three decades. The artist works in painting, collage, and printmaking. Church has had numerous solo shows including at Garrison Art Center, Vassar College’s Palmer Gallery; Womenswork. ART; Dutchess Community College Gallery; Chapman Friedman Gallery, Louisville, KY; University of Kentucky’s Center for Contemporary Art; LoRiver Arts Gallery, Beacon, NY and Go North, also in Beacon, NY.  Her work was shown at the Dublin Art Fair and the Edinburgh Art Fair represented by Blue Leaf Gallery. Her artwork is included in both private and institutional collections nationally. Church studied printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design, n.d., and has a B.A. in Visual Arts from Bennington College and an M.F.A. in Painting from The University of Kentucky. She is represented by Burton Marinkovich Fine Art in Washington DC.

M. Pettee Olsen is a contemporary artist who maintains studios in the Hudson Valley and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Best known for their spatially dynamic, and boundary-pushing paintings, Pettee Olsen’s work has been described as ”mutable perceptual events” by art historian Stephanie Grilli, Yale Ph.D. . Career highlights have been published in Artforum and Art News. Additionally, the artist has been received positively by the press including Westword — A Village Voice publication, The Denver Post, The Providence Journal, Art New England, and others. Pettee Olsen is the recipient of numerous awards, including an Artist Grant from the Rhode Island School of Design, from which she is a graduate (BFA, Painting). Pettee Olsen also holds a master’s degree from Columbia University in the City of New York. M. Pettee Olsen is a fully engaged participant in the current art scene with previous inclusion in symposia on their work, and recorded podcasts. Recent shows include Vassar’s James Palmer Gallery, Macy Gallery at Columbia University, Gibson Contemporary in New York, and The Coral Door, the West Village, Manhattan. M. Pettee Olsen’s work is included in private collections internationally.

Michael Oatman is a multimedia artist and curator living in Troy, New York, where he teaches in the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. For 30 years, his large-scale collages and installations have been shown internationally. Calling his practice “the poetic interpretation of documents”, he has critically represented private and institutional holdings of material culture. As the first artist to be invited to interpret the personal archives of the astronaut, Oatman exhibited MY FATHER, NEIL ARMSTRONG, MY MOTHER, THE MOON, at Purdue University’s Museum in 2018. His works are held by Mass MOCA, The Tang Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, and numerous private and public collections. Oatman received the Nancy Graves Prize in 2003.

Rosanne Walsh is a multi-media and collage artist based in Connecticut. She began her career in the film and editing industry, and is a decades-long arts educator. Walsh is an active participant in CUT ME UP, Andrea Bergay’s perpetually changing and participatory collage-periodical. Cut Me Up takes from the previous editions’ collages and invites artists to cut and rearrange them in new collages, perpetually evolving imagery and meaning. She has been invited to speak and exhibit at conferences in the United States, both in the tri-state area and NOLA, as well as internationally, in Berlin, Germany. She has a master’s degree in Art Education from Leslie University and a BFA in film and animation from the Rhode Island School of Design.

This project is a work in progress. There may be additional and clarifying material added and edited over time.

“Palmer Gallery Exhibit Explores the Importance of Abstraction” reviewed by Ganesh Pillai for The Miscellany News, for which it made the front cover

Front Page Miscellany News

Many thanks again go to Amy Manso for her exhibition design, Ed Cheetham, Gallery Director, and Tom Pacio, Director of Creative Arts Across Disciplines for supporting Monica Church in her role as curator.

Editorial contributions by William C. Van de Mark