Light come shining
Debra Baxter, Dawn Cerny and Jenny Heishman
“They say everything can be replaced/Yet every distance is not near.”
Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Released”
The opening lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” arguably one of his best and most often covered songs, inspired the title of Every Distance is Not Near, the current exhibition at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery. It’s a poetic, Zen-like phrase that defies easy explanation. It’s both simple—one response might be “yeah, some are far”—and profound—because, since distance is a measure between two things, shouldn’t every distance at least begin as near? Near to what?
It might seem straightforward, but the more you think about it, the further away it gets, like a distance that can’t be bridged.
The exhibition brings together three Seattle-based artists who had never collaborated before, Debra Baxter, Dawn Cerny and Jenny Heishman. Sheppard Gallery director and curator Marjorie Vecchio suggested the title and asked the three to collaborate after separate visits to their respective studios. She noticed some commonalities among the three artists, most notably what she describes as a “leakiness” of the work. None of the three artists create singular, self-contained art objects. The artists bring together wide varieties of materials—burlap, wood, aluminum foil, paper, latex, amethyst and more—and arrange them in sprawling, three-dimensional assemblages.
Perceptions of the works change from different perspectives in the gallery. Heishman’s “Bandanna,” one of the very few wall-mounted works in the exhibition, consists of a purple 11-by-11 inkjet print of a common handkerchief pattern, crossed in an X shape with yellow tape. From across the room, the piece looks like a flag, but closer inspection reveals that the yellow tape extends past the borders of the bandanna pattern, and the meaning shifts. It seems like the yellow tape is crossing out the bandanna, negating it. From across the room, it looks like a unified, prideful symbol. Up close, it looks like a rejection.
The exhibition as a whole inspires some questions that are usually much easier to answer at traditional gallery exhibitions: Is this completely installed? Is this one large installation or a series of individual sculptures? How much of this work was collaborative?
The lines between complete-incomplete, part-whole, individual-collaborative are elusive, unresolved, like that picture that’s neither duck nor rabbit but both simultaneously. Because many of the materials used are common household objects, the exhibition feels intimate, like a visit to somebody’s home. The familiar seems strange and the strange seems familiar.
“The word I keep using is ‘porous,’” says Cerny. The work has an appealing unfinished quality. Interpretations flow through the work without coming to a standstill, and it’s difficult to tell where one piece ends and the next begins. This connects to the title—the intangible distances among the pieces. It’s like in a movie when the leading couple leans in for a kiss, the screen fades to black and then, in the next scene, the characters are putting their clothes back on. It’s up to the viewer to fill in the gaps.