Wednesday, November 9, 2022

"Justified + Ancient: 16 Contemporary Artists Transcend Time and Space," Part 1

Iatmul Hook from Papa New Guinea (19th c.) with panel
from Traci Kegerreis' "Rite of Passage" Triptych (2022)
Once in a while, I come upon an exhibit that is so special that I want to transport everyone I know to see it. "Justified + Ancient: 16 Artists Transcending Time and Culture" is that type of show. It is on display now through Nov. 17 at MARA Gallery in Sarasota. 

The concept sounds simple: Pair ancient artifacts from all over the world (owned by an unnamed collector) with contemporary artwork created in response to the object. The execution, however, was anything but. I had the opportunity to meet several of the artists and speak with them about their processes. Without exception, each dug deep into the history and meaning of the artifact with which she had been paired. They thought about what's happening in today's world and how the artifact and the artwork might speak to each other -- and to the viewer. There's no way I can do justice to the art or those conversations in this post. But I hope these posts will allow people who can't see the show to get a sense of it. 

Kegerreis' "Rite of Passage"
It was difficult to decide both which pairings to share and how to show them. Most of the ancient objects are dwarfed by their companion pieces in size (but not in power). The Iatmul Hook above, for instance, is no more than a quarter of the size of Kegerreis' work. So keep that in mind as you're looking at these images. 

Iatmul suspension hooks were both utilitarian and decorative. They were typically hung from a rafter so that baskets and string bags filled with food and other valuables would be safely out of reach of animals. I didn't have an opportunity to speak with Kegerreis about her thought process for the creation of "Rite of Passage." I do know, though, that she uses found and recycled materials in her mixed media work. So perhaps her work speaks in part to the beauty of objects we use in our daily lives. There are so many wonderful details, though, that I know there's much more going on. 

Clay jar circa 4th c. BC from Magna Graecia 
and "Same Sky, Messages" by Lisa DiFranza (2022)
Lisa DiFranza was paired with a 4th century BC object from Magna Graecia, a group of ancient Greek cities on the southern coast of Italy. She learned that this type of clay jar was used to store soaps and perfumes and was often passed down from generation to generation. These jars were typically present during bridal rituals as the bride prepared for the ceremony. So it's no surprise that the jar includes an image of a panther, a symbol of fertility. 

As DiFranza was beginning her research on the project, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Suddenly, her artifact had a much deeper connection with present day events. She decided to depict women protesting for reproductive rights in her painting. She thought about the relationship between protests and theater, an art form that thrived in ancient Greece. And in a direct nod to her artifact, she included an image of a panther on the dress of her central figure. 

Syro-Hittite Figures circa 1800-1200 BC
I had the opportunity to talk with Midge Johnson on two occasions about her work, which welcomes viewers into the gallery. I wish I had a recording I could share here. She is so thoughtful about her process and generous about sharing the details with viewers. 

Johnson was paired with these wonderful Syro-Hittite figures circa 1800-1200 BC. They were my favorite objects in the exhibit. Their faces are so expressive (not to mention adorable). They are votives that were used in offerings to the gods when in need of a blessing. 

"The Hittites: 420 Years" by Midge Johnson (2022) (one panel of two)

Before starting her work, Johnson researched the Hittite people. She learned that they lived during a time that spanned both the Bronze and the Iron Ages. In a nod to this history, Johnson includes three replicas of Hittite coins, which can be seen just left center of the wood canvas. They add a wonderful texture to the work. (Note that I have included only one of the works in Johnson's large-scale diptych in hopes of showing some of the detail.) In a bit of serendipity, Johnson realized after she had finished the work that it includes what looks like a horse nearly level with the coins. One of the coins includes an image of a horse, something Johnson must have subconsciously taken in. I love it. 

Johnson also learned that the Hittites used a cueniform script in writings on clay tablets that have been preserved. In fact, in 1259 BC, the Eyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty was signed. It is the oldest known surviving peace treaty and the earliest example of a written international agreement. So of course Johnson included her own lettering in her works. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post. But if you can, get to MARA Gallery to see the show before it closes on November 17. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday from 10-2:30 and Saturday, November, 12, from 11-3. It is an exceptional exhibit. 


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