Art on a Blender

Diverse elements come together in a challenging assemblage at the Arts Center.

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click to enlarge BOXED MEMORIES: Peter Dudek's Mondrian-square inspired "Monument to My Lovelife." - Courtesy Peter Dudek/arts Center
Courtesy Peter Dudek/arts Center
BOXED MEMORIES: Peter Dudek's Mondrian-square inspired "Monument to My Lovelife."

As naturalists are fond of saying, a river is a living thing. In a way, John Morton's work proves them right. The thing is, he's not a scientist — he's an experimental composer.

Last year, Piermont Public Library in upstate New York, near where Morton lives, approached him about creating an original sound experience for its patrons. Because the newly renovated library overlooks the Hudson River, which flows for about 300 miles from the Adirondacks down to the Big Apple, Morton decided that his composition should be created with sounds — music — drawn directly from the river: from atop its watery surface, on its populated banks and even from its depths.

Morton set out to collect found sounds and capture new ones, accepting gifts of noise from underwater recorders and an archive of interviews with sailors, as well as mounting a boat with Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the environmental organization founded by Pete Seeger, and taping sounds with a DAT recorder.

Once he had gathered a wealth of raw material, Morton loaded the sounds into an innovative computer program called Max/MSP — he compares it to Photoshop for sound and video — which alters and recombines the sounds randomly to produce a different performance for each listener who steps up to the speakers.

The result may be the most peculiar symphony you've ever heard: a mysterious mix of aqueous gurgles, squeals, rumbles, bells, and human and animal voices that, in spite of their randomness, seem to tell a story.

For a limited time, you can experience Morton's "SonicHudson" and check out similarly inspired works by eight other artists at the Arts Center exhibit Collage in the Expanded Field. A mind-bending, envelope-pushing combination of works in a variety of media — sculpture, installation, computer programming, painting, printmaking, video, photography and drawing — this showcase is devoted to contemporary takes on the hundred-year-old practice of collage in fine art.

Some of the artists find expression in cutting-edge technology, adopting the postmodern idea of experience as a collection of fragments, while others use relatively traditional techniques in fresh ways.

Artists Jacqueline Shatz, Morton's wife, and Joel Carreiro, who directs the respected fine arts graduate program at the City University of New York's Hunter College, organized the exhibit. The two artists, both of whom have work on view, remain acquainted from their own days as students at Hunter, and several artists in the exhibit are grads. They brought the concept to the Arts Center after hearing from a friend who had previously exhibited there that the St. Pete venue was a delight to work with. Accordingly, the show — dominated by New Yorkers — offers an easy, informal feel in combination with big ideas.

Playfulness abounds, most notably Jillian McDonald's video Screen Kiss. In the six-minute piece, the artist takes on the role of leading lady, using technology to put herself, literally and quite seamlessly, in place of actresses in kissing scenes with well-known leading men. As the seconds tick by and McDonald, an attractive brunette, passionately smooches Johnny Depp, among others, the mood transitions from hilarity to uncomfortable tension. A mere mortal locking lips with the stars? It's just not right! With one liberating and naïve gesture, McDonald has — as they say in the academic world — complicated the power relationship between male and female, famous and distinctly un-famous, as she happily violates her handsome companions. Thank heaven for Fair Use.

In separate piece nearby, McDonald invites viewers to create short video montages by typing text into a computer. In response to the words (visitors are asked to describe an experience on a snowy day), the computer's program chooses video clips to play inside a snow-globe graphic.

But not every artist's work is high-tech or even layered with intellectual nuances. Carreiro's paintings can be gotten in a second or savored for hours. The birch panels are coated with a grid of small, square fragments (or pixels, if you like), appropriated from Old Master paintings full of drama and color — e.g., Rembrandt heads and Poussin landscapes.

Surprisingly, Carreiro uses the simple technology of the iron-on T-shirt to create his encaustic-like surfaces, ironing waxy graphics directly onto the wood. The slight transparence creates the illusion of a portal into space behind or beyond the surface, he says.

Shatz constructs hole-riddled forms reminiscent of skulls or coral from clay. Adhering bits of fabric, lace and silk to the surface instead of glaze, she winds up with fetish-like creations at once vaguely creepy and childlike.

One of the most intriguing encounters in the show arises from Peter Dudek's puzzle-like geometric abstraction in three dimensions. A quirky assemblage bearing the somewhat forlorn title "Monument to My Lovelife," the installation spreads Mondrian-esque colored blocks and panels, grids of metal wire and stacks of blocks piled atop stacked stools and end tables over several square feet, towering up to eye-level. The resulting adventure in scale and symmetry suggests a cityscape of the mind — an unrelentingly rational one, at that.

Along a similar dynamic, Thomas Weaver's wall-sized collage of drawings offers a pastiche of different stories and visual styles. Rather like a William Kentridge animation, the collection juxtaposes startlingly different pieces of a conversation unified by subtle signs of the same skilled and distinctive hand. (In Dudek's and Weaver's work, you'll find the most radical articulations of the idea that meaning and interpretation are the largely subjective result of seeing and discovering by the viewer.)

On the flip side, projects by Hilda Shen and Brian Wood have more to do with a search for ineffable glimpses of interminable time. Spare and often black-and-white, Shen's paper, ink and wax sculptures, inspired by geology, and Wood's enigmatic lithographs and photo-drawing collages, are withholding and subtle where others purposely over-stimulate.

Carreiro, the exhibit's co-organizer, hopes the show will travel and perhaps even grow in size with more artists. Comparing the effort to a seminal exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art that confirmed drawing's ascendance in contemporary art, Carreiro believes collage's time has come. Based on the evidence presented at the Arts Center, I would have to agree.

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