In addition to being an activist, artist, U. C. professor, director of the VA’s Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service, and writing a monthly column for Aeqai (“Art for a Better World”), Saad Ghosn has found time to curate nearly 200 exhibitions. Many of them reflect his dedication to social activism and justice, and sometimes what the artist wishes to communicate overpowers the aesthetic content. This is not the case with “Flight” at Covington Arts. Ghosn has no overt political agenda to advance here; rather he has chosen three Greater Cincinnati artists, who happen to be women, because “each, through her specific work in the show, addresses the notion of passage, memory, dialogue within the cycle of life.”
Collagist Sharmon Davidson adheres most closely to this theme. The former graphic designer and public school art teacher writes, “My work is intensely personal, exploring my own childhood mythology and vocabulary of symbols that I’ve developed as I sought to express the time that lies at the foundation of it all.”
With that in mind, I must assume that each of Davidson’s 13 collages and two books on view tell her story, even though to my eyes, they are cryptic tales. Artist books could be the best vehicle to convey her narrative, but it’s a very difficult format. They are often too fragile to leaf through. I suspect only those closest to the artist have actually “read” them, and, if sold, only the buyer and his circle will. The two here are fanned out so that you can at least see each page.
The collages are more easily studied, but I still couldn’t puzzle out her meaning. Fortunately her engaging compositions with intriguing bits of ephemera make it unnecessary.
Because of the title of the exhibition, it’s fitting to start with Theory of Flight. Here a bird’s claws are curled, and, with wings fully extended, ready to swoop down to seize an enticing morsel on the ground. He stands out against a background that includes a topographical map, snippets of scientific text, two indigo-blue Swiss postage stamps (presumably airmail), a feather, and a rusty compass used in mathematics and navigation. A thin metal wire is attached at the point of one of its two legs. It stretches to the left edge, wraps around a small metal object (which I suspect someone handier with tools could identify), and then runs diagonally upward to a gear before changing direction to end (or does it start here?) at the compass’s screw. The wires frame the body of the bird. Davidson certainly isn’t explaining the theory of flight; instead she takes you on a flight of fancy.
With Jan Nickum’s charming birds that she sees as messengers to the world, the artist has taken the idea of flight the most literally. Some of her mixed medium pieces could be illustrations of specific species. Without the verisimilitude of an Audubon, she captures the essence of the bird with her more freely drawn and expressionistic handling of her materials, primarily acrylic and wax pastel complemented by collage elements. Her biography notes that after establishing a career in visual merchandising, set design, and photo styling in Cincinnati, she traveled for a year in Europe, exploring her interest in German Expressionism. Her own works lack the darkness of this movement of the early 20th century and the artists who reprised it nearer to the end of the century.
Although I find Nickum’s “portraits” of birds quite appealing, I’m more drawn to her narrative work. In Memorial Flight, she’s combined three panels, each with a separate image, and surrounded it all with narrow strips of wood. The largest panel occupies two-thirds of the composition and shows a bird (perhaps a dove?) gliding, riding the air currents. Instead of the expected blue, the background is pink. Hovering above its head, almost like a halo, is a circlet (a wreath?) of posies; it appears to be an embossed sticker. The left wing of the bird just brushes a smaller rectangular section in the lower right, which is filled by a field of impressionistic flowers in the same pastel palette as the collage element. To its left and slightly larger is a postcard-like picture of the Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe with its twin spires that are second in height only to the steeple of Ulm Minster, which is reportedly the world’s tallest church.
The Cathedral dominates the city that was flattened in World War II. Although damaged, it was never hit directly. One reason put forward is that Allied pilots used it as a navigational point for targets deeper in Germany.
On the longest wood strip on the frame’s left side, Nickum’s written, in the endangered cursive: “all that was mortal shall be burned, all that was mind shall have been put to sleep.” Without becoming strident, she’s quite effectively created a powerful statement about war.
Marsha Karagheusian has a more specific message about war, but it does not overwhelm the visual. Being of Armenian extraction, she has a direct connection to the Armenian genocide that began in Constantinople on April 24, 1915, when several hundred intellectuals were murdered by the Ottoman Turks. They would go on to kill as many as 1.5 million Armenian Christians as well as a million Greek and Assyrian Christians over the next two years. Pope Francis has recently called the systematic slaughter “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Recalling its envoy to the Vatican, Turkey continues to insist the deaths were the result of warfare and famine, and protest the use of the word “genocide.” International condemnation has been muted because of Turkey’s strategic geographic location.
The Xavier University professor has used the mass slayings as the basis of her ceramic work (eight reliefs and three less successful freestanding sculptures) on view. In addition to the immediate execution of men, intellectuals, leaders, and artists; the weakest — women, children, and the elderly — were forced to march to the Syrian Desert; the march has been called a “concentration camp on foot.”
I suspect that Karagheusian is familiar with photographs that document the atrocities. I found quite a number with just a quick look on Wikipedia: a line of skeletons neatly laid out on the ground, a jumble of skulls, a single file of people trudging up a mountain, an emaciated nude female corpse, and many others.
In Karagheusian’s Death March, a similar figure lies on a macabre chaise longue made of a pile of bones and skulls; their empty eye sockets and bared teeth make the scene even more nightmarish. In the background, almost like a high, closely spaced picket fence, there is a ghostly line of faceless figures, both adults and children.
Karagheusian’s dun-colored reliefs have a coarseness heightened by their pitted surfaces. It’s not really important that you know the specific events that inspired the series; the reliefs are an almost perfect manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man. Karagheusian’s thesis is clear, and the chilling works reinforce it without being subsumed by it.
Ghosn is to be congratulated on creating an exhibition that is so visually compelling, and from which each viewer can take away his/her own vision of flight.
–Karen S. Chambers