Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Saccio and Johnson reveal their artistic natures

Kehler Liddell Gallery
873 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9555
Keith Johnson and Joseph Saccio
Oct. 3—28, 2007
Artists talk: Thurs., Oct. 25, 7 p.m.

There is a fine show over at the Kehler Liddell Gallery in New Haven's Westville neighborhood. I stopped in at the opening on Sunday, checked out Keith Johnson's photographs and Joseph Saccio's stunning sculptures.

Saccio uses disparate materials to create complex idiosyncratic forms. The materials include found object scraps, packing materials, ping pong balls and more. Saccio likes to contrast the natural and synthetic. He seems particularly attracted to wood in both its various processed forms and in its natural state. A couple of the sculptures here explore that dichotomy directly. "Once a Tree I" and "Once a Tree II" each stand on a base carved from a tree trunk. The "trunk" of each sculpture, though, is made up of cardboard discs. The trunks terminate in "foliage" of crumpled paper out of which sprout branches of carved wood. Natural wood extends into processed wood (cardboard and paper) back into natural wood. But even the "natural" wood in these works has been partially processed—carved and painted or stained.

One of the perks of exploring a show at an opening is the opportunity to talk with the artists. I spoke with Saccio about several of his pieces. He told me that, in choosing his materials, he "looks for textures with a kind of regularity, a repetition" that resembles the "kind of growth phenomenon you see biologically."

As an example, he directed my attention to "In the Dark Forest Primeval One Discovers the Ambivalent Ping Pong Tree." The painted packing material at top reminded me of coral. It was studded in several places with ping pong balls, their fragile off-white surfaces resembling carefully placed eggs.

Saccio told me that his pieces tend to develop "organically," without any preconceived endpoint. I was asking in particular about "Wake For a Dead Forest." It had its beginning in Saccio's acquiring pieces of packing boxes from another Erector Square studio tenant. The strips of cardboard adhered to wood slats sparked his interest. Wanting to create a work that "reflected the state of the original substance, a tree in a forest," he used actual twigs to put "roots" on them. The piece then sat for many months until Saccio decided to use ragged pieces of wood veneer "to put wings on it, so it could fly." Saccio then added layers of collaged imagery. Skulls, possibly photos from the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, evoked the death of the forest. Images of dancers on a black background also had macabre associations for Saccio, reminiscent of an Irish wake. Collaged images of "awesome landscapes"—canyons, lightning strikes—add portentous power. The addition between the wood and cardboard slats of lengths of Plexiglas cut into gently rolling shapes gives the appearance of clouds when viewed from the side. At the top, crumpled paper coated with resin represents the forest canopy.

Saccio doesn't miss the trees for the forest, though. "Do You Remember That White Tree?" is composed of two long branches of a white birch from Saccio's yard. They are mounted on a base in such a way as to arc toward the ceiling, one of the branches curving in toward the other. There are a series of shiny metal strips joining the branches together. As it rises toward the ceiling, curving in upon itself, it looks like a stairway to the heavens.

While some of Saccio's works are somber (and playful at the same time), others are more lighthearted in aspect. This is the case for "The Great Showgirl Returns, Bejeweled, Outrageous, but Sad." Protruding from the wall like a giant enhanced burlesque breast, it has layers of foil tubing, pink plastic, green plastic and glittery stars. It is fascinating and absurd.

In comparison to Saccio's unique aesthetic, Keith Johnson's photographs seem far more traditional. But there are points of complementarity. Some of his landscapes are of unadulterated natural scenes. But most document the intersection of the natural world and the manmade, usually to the detriment of nature.

There is an interesting contrast between the side-by-side triptychs of "Cape Cod Tri" and "Stone Crop." The former includes three separate shots of wooded scenes: twisted trunks of scrub pine, floor of pine needles, dappled sunlight and tall coarse grasses. "Stone Crop" also portrays three nature scenes. But where "Cape Cod Tri" offers a natural image of contemplative freedom, "Stone Crop" is different. First, and most noticeably, taut horizontal wires in the foreground fence nature in and the viewer out in each panel. There are also natural elements that play into that sense of confinement: the tangle of forbidding brambles in the image on the left, the profusion of clutching vines that cover the brush in the center and overrun a large rock on the right.

Johnson shows an appreciation of form and texture that complements that of Saccio. The image field in "Red Rock" is filled with light blond gravel. But the crushed stone on the right is finer than the rocks on the left.

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