Confluence: Partnership and Creativity
The concept for “Confluence: Partnership and Creativity” was cooked up over dinner by potter Pam Korte and her husband, poet Richard Hague, and ceramic sculptor Terri Kern and her husband, graphic artist and letterpress printer David Umbenhour. Why not show the work of couples, to show how their personal relationships affect their art? Confluence– a “meeting of streams” or the “meeting of two or more things”–seemed the best word for this simple idea with promise.
The exhibition featuring eight life partners and one studio duo at the College of Mt. St.
Joseph was organized by Korte, a faculty member there. She articulates the show’s thesis by saying “Creative partnerships exist on many levels. One form is actual collaboration where artists have a hand in the same works. Another is shared concept where the fruitful discussion of themes, shared reading material, travel together, and even life together leads to similar impulses but separate works. Creative energy may also come from a subtle competition.”
Since the confluence might be collaboration, conversation, and/or competition, you need a scorecard to see the player match-ups. Fortunately, each two-some’s artwork is hung in close proximity, and the artists’ statements discuss their relationships and work. More about that later.
Only one couple collaborates as well as cohabitates: Kern and Umbenhour. Although Kern is primarily known for her ceramic sculpture, she has made strong black-and-white drawings for Umbenhour’s lusciously printed letterpress broadsides of song lyrics as well as stories and poems contributed by Hague. Kern’s tiles were used for a book of Hague’s poetry.
Although perhaps not immediately apparent, there are aesthetic connections between Kern and Umbenhour. Both use black and white to great effect. Kern’s sculptures are tactile, and so are Umbenhour’s impressions of type on paper, which makes a subtle relief that is perceived haptically. And both artists tell stories through their work.
Kern has developed a vocabulary of symbols: birds—women; wolves and foxes–men; nests–possibilities; ladders–doubt; snakes–forgiveness; trees–compromise and change; and books–past regrets and the future. Thus, her ceramic sculptures can be read. For example, Bait is a nest of possibilities wrapped with ladders of doubt; it is filled with tiny “leather-bound” books, containing both the regrets of the past and the promise of the future.
Only two artists share the same material; Yuki Muroe and Gil Stengel work with clay. Stengel calls himself a potter, but describes Muroe as a sculptor. But those differences seem rather slight when each artist achieves similar results by sharing clay and glazes and firing their work together. The scale of Muroe’s sculptures is in sync with Stengel’s pots, bringing their work even closer.
One of the nine pairs—Cynthia Gregory and Christian Schmit—are not life partners, and I would say don’t belong in this exhibition although their work seems the most connected conceptually and visually. Gregory “appreciate(s) (the) shared themes inherent in his work and my own, e. g., we both explore concepts related to communication, inner worlds, memory, enigma, loss, and containment. One of the best examples of our studio confluence is in my installation The Poet’s Table. Schmit’s feedback and assistance in constructing my table design concept became essential to its completion.” (Schmit and Jim Ebbler helped build the table.)
The Poet’s Table was Gregory’s 2012 M. F. A. thesis show at the University of Cincinnati. A writer as well as a visual artist, Gregory says the piece suggests “a poet’s desk, an artist’s studio table, and even a work space from a scholar’s study, the table is a vessel for secrets.”
On the table, Gregory has arranged an array of objects that represent both the literary and visual arts: a stack of notebooks, pencils, an eraser, lumps of clay, a key, a ruler, and more. Small drawers also hold objects of memory: stones, a twig, twine, matches, etc. The objects are crafted in a variety of materials: salvaged wood, insulation foam, plaster, paper, and acrylic paint.
There’s a verisimilitude that could be seen as Pop Art or trompe l’oeil, but Gregory says she’s “less interested in fooling the viewer’s eye than I am in encouraging what Philip Rawson refers to as the viewer’s ‘habit of attention,’ that is to be drawn in, to re-evaluate and unravel what’s seen.”
Larger than dollhouse furniture, Schmit’s miniatures of chests, tables, spinning tops, suitcases, etc., all made of cardboard or paper bags, explore the same themes as Gregory’s Poet’s Table and with the same verisimilitude. “The principal concepts that fuel my current work are the creation, capture, and containment of memories.” He acknowledges Gregory’s contribution as a “provocateur”—both overt and mysterious. She provokes “the sudden appearance of memories extrinsic to my own making.” “Ghost memories” is what he calls them.
In general, the exhibiting couples’ work is on the same level of accomplishment, but there are exceptions. Stuart Golder’s tiny cups of plique-à-jour are technical tours-de-force. He uses an enameling technique where the vitreous enamel is applied in cells made of thin wire, like in cloissoné, over a wood form that is burned away. The effect is like stained glass with light shining through. It’s a new technique for the goldsmith who is known for his woven goldwork, but it dates to the 6th century Byzantine Empire.
His wife, Margaret Rhein, is a papermaker and mosaic artist. And she is not well served by having her Miss Moosaic in the same case with Golder’s exquisite cups and desire-inducing jewelry. It’s interesting to note that the high point in the art of mosaics was during Byzantine times.
Rhein’s cow is covered with broken crockery, glass, jewelry, and stones. The finesse of her husband’s work is completely absent. Instead her piece looks like the product of an arts-and-crafts class. Yeah, yeah, I understand that her aim is not the same as her husband’s, but her faux naïveté is not charming to me, just awkward.
I felt the same way about the work of Jay Bachemin and Kymberly Henson. In view, he’s the more accomplished of the two. A commercial photographer, he’s showing photos shot with his cellphone, believing that “photography can often feel ‘top-heavy’ with the amount of equipment needed. In contrast, the cellphone camera offers an immediate and straightforward means of recording images from day to day.” He enjoys “cross referencing multiple images in a single print. ‘The sum is greater than its parts’ is a state I try to achieve when editing and selecting images to put together.” And he does this masterfully and wittily in his vertically oriented diptychs. In Grace Succumbs to Catastrophe, a grieving angel carved on a graveyard marker is the bottom half of the piece; the top is of an egg dropping toward a rough wooden table. Disaster awaits.
Henson uses plastic female torsos scavenged from a big-box store’s trash with the management’s permission. They had been used to display swimsuits. She has covered them with eggshells and written pithy comments such as “stomach soooo not flat” and “knockers.” It looks like the work of a feminist hobbyist. (I am not prejudiced against mosaic as a medium, really I’m not. Suzanne Fisher uses it quite successfully.)
Henson explains that she started the series when she turned 50. “The size stickers on the leg of the form got me to thinking about how women in our society obsess about our looks and our weight. In my case, growing older, I saw it as an opportunity to comment on my body image now. My body is all of its previous stages, and my body image going forward. It’s a way for me to make friends with ‘what I got’ as well as ‘what I don’t got.’” (Bachemin shows what that is in A Husband Wife Dream with his wife asleep on a sofa.)
This is an issue that I know still has currency—hell, I deal with it daily—but it also feels very dated—think Carolee Schneeman, Lynda Benglis, Hannah Wilke, Charlotte Moorman, Ana Mendieta, and a myriad of other feminist artists from the 1960s onward who have used their bodies to explore such issues. Or to cross gender boundaries, there’s John Coplans’ own photographic elegies on his aging body. But Henson is heavy-handed.
I think we all are at least a bit voyeuristic at heart, and this exhibition, which also includes ceramist Ana England and sculptor Steven Finke, Diane Kruer who hand-paints photographs and photographer Barry Andersen, and the self-described “three-dimensional collagist” Ginger Sheridan in the work shown and painter Ronald Gibbons, aimed at giving us a peek into the private lives of nine couples. But in the end just seeing the work really didn’t illustrate confluence. It took their written statements to see how they might.
For example, the writer Hague explained, “Plants, animals, and insects, the garden dynamics of growth, bloom, and fruit, have inspired my poems and my wife, Pam Korte’s biomorphic pots.”
England admits, “The creative partnership I have with my husband, Steve Finke, may not be apparent in the form of the art (although the thumbprints in Shared Identity: Wave and Galaxy with Thumbprints are ours). But my artistic evolution has been fed by more than two decades of mutual reading, listening, arguing, looking, and building projects.”
Only two legitimate (meaning not Gregory and Schmit) couples—Muroe and Stengel and Andersen and Kruer—provide us a real glimpse into a shared creative process. Both have real give-and-take discussions about their work.
Because Muroe has a “much better eye than I do,” Stengel asks for her “input on proportion, line, and balance in my pots,” and Stengel contributes his technical skills to the partnership. They share a studio but, “There is a line down the middle of the shop when we’re both working, and she’s like Gandalf over there, you know, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS!’”
And Andersen and Kruer explain their relationship in the dialogue that is their statement. It starts with a back and forth, each asking questions and commenting on the other’s work; leads to a discussion about an uncooperative printer; and ends with “OK—if you (Andersen) fix it—I will cook.
“What if we just go out?”
There’s an odd confluence between these two couples because Stengel ends his own statement after discussing studio boundaries with “No problem, I’ll cook dinner.”
I wonder if how all of these couples share or don’t share the kitchen might have produced better examples of confluence as collaboration, conversation, and/or competition.
Karen S. Chambers
- Barry Andersen, Sky, Rain, and Sea, 2008, archival inkjet print, 16” x 22”.
- Margaret Rhein, Land of Goshen, handmade paper collage with pulp painting, 22” x 30”.
- Pam Korte, Off the Vine, 2012, porcelain oxidation fired
- Terri Kern, Mentor, hand-painted with underglaze on clay and framed, 8” x 6” unframed.
5 & 6) Cynthia Gregory, The Poet’s Table, 2012, mixed mediums, dimensions variable.
“Confluence: Partnership and Creativity,” on view through March 26, 2013, at Studio San Giuseppe Art Gallery, College of Mt. St. Joseph, 5701 Delhi Road, Delhi Twp., Cincinnati, OH 45233. 513-244-4314, www.msj.edu. Mon.-Fri., 10 a. m.-5 p. m., Sat.-Sun., 1 p. m.-5 p. m.