Michelle Lassaline’s latest work is useless in the best way possible.
She has a new exhibition at Oats Park Art Center called Cirque. It’s a two-room show whose larger gallery is decked in light-soaked watercolors depicting West Coast rock formations. Each painting—a portrait of geological antiquity and passing light—is either time-stamped, location-stamped, or both to distinguish pieces like “Mt. Whitney 6:36am” from pieces like “Mt. Whitney 6:40am.”
The second gallery is filled with 16 small, whimsical sculptures made of things like wood, wire, white paint, string, beeswax, cheesewax, and other “treasures found in forests, beaches, gardens, and attics.” A row of annotated drawings serves as a key to the objects’ peculiar functions.
On the surface, the two rooms look like distinct bodies of work with only an artist in common. But the glue is in the title.
“In French [Cirque] means circus and in geography and geology it refers to a feature where mountains are carved out by ancient glaciers,” explained Lassaline.
Both definitions loosely cover the rock-centered watercolors and theatrical assemblage of found objects on display. And for those grasping for more connections, they can be found in Lassaline’s nature walks—the inspiration behind both her realistic paintings as well as the collection of rocks, kelp, and seedpods that show up in the artist’s various sculptures.
People not concerned with overlap might be the most pleased of all with Cirque. That’s because, for all the scrubbed connections between the two halves of the exhibit (even Lassaline admits the show’s concept is “a little clean”), the formal qualities of both the 2D and 3D work are interesting enough to stand on their own, especially the three-dimensional work.
All of Lassaline’s airy sculptures have a neutral palette (black, white, tan) with pops of color (crimson, mustard yellow) and delicate moving parts. They look like set pieces from a Wes Anderson movie about the science fair. There are scales, swings, a timekeeper, a flying machine, and instruments for recording underwater sounds.
“The functions are there, but they’re completely imaginary, and I’m really dead serious about them,” said Lassaline. “It’s essential that they’re not useful in real life, but there is an imaginary function.”
The pretend-purpose of “The Five Dot Weather Vane” is like that. It’s Lassaline’s take on the “weather rock” you made in elementary school, but instead of a hanging rock that senses rain (when the rock is wet), wind (when the rock is swinging), and hot or cold temperatures (when the rock is hot or cold), Lassaline’s instrument responds to weather patterns with drooping feathers, blooming amaranth, melting wax, and blowing flags. Whether it actually performs these functions is questionable and ultimately not too important.
Imagining is also enough for “The Hilarri,” a scale-like invention that balances five rocks from Lake Powell against a white-paint-coated counterweight. Its nonsensical measurement brings up questions about other values we might weigh (and their comparative absurdity to five rocks from Lake Powell).
“The Timekeeper” almost works on a functional level. Though it has a passing resemblance to a sundial, the small statue-like sculpture is loaded with extra features (a dried flower pod, red wax, a piece of lobster claw) that get in the way of actually telling time. A quick study of the corresponding drawing reveals some handwritten notes that detail the artist’s daily activities. Events like “breakfast/pet pets,” “work, paint, draw” and “warm up/outside” have no real way of being tracked with this object, even if the user wanted to.
It’s useless. The item, telling time, weighing things, predicting the weather. Useless but not without value. Kind of like watching the light.