Asheville Art Museum exhibits BMC Artwork and Epic Installations

Ronald Robertson Studies Building at Black Mountain College, oil on Masonite, 17.9 x 18.6 inches. Gift of the Artist. 2013.19.04.21.
Ronald Robertson Studies Building at Black Mountain College, oil on Masonite, 17.9 x 18.6 inches. Gift of the Artist. 2013.19.04.21.

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(Editors Note:  Max Eternity extends his gratitude to Janice Caldwell for providing travel and accommodations for 3 days in Asheville, North Carolina, which facilited the on site interview included in this article.)

Asheville Art Museum exhibits BMC Artwork and Epic Installations

By Max Eternity

 

A popular resurgence of interest in Black Mountain College (BMC) continues to grow nationally, with numerous exhibitions happening this year recalling the school’s rich historical past while holding high its living legacy.  Geometric Vistas: Landscapes by Artists of Black Mountain College opened on August 6th at the Asheville Art Museum in North Carolina.

Ronald Robertson Studies Building at Black Mountain College, oil on Masonite, 17.9 x 18.6 inches. Gift of the Artist. 2013.19.04.21.
Ronald Robertson Studies Building at Black Mountain College, oil on Masonite, 17.9 x 18.6 inches. Gift of the Artist. 2013.19.04.21.

Located in close proximity of BMC, the exhibit features “abstract landscapes and cityscapes created by artists who studied and taught BMC,” and a partial list of artists’ works shown includes Ronald Robertson, Gerald van de Wiele and John Urbain.

From the museum’s press release:

Black Mountain College (BMC) is situated in the mountains of Western North Carolina…because of its remarkable setting, many students and faculty painted, drew and photographed the school and its nearby surroundings…each artist moved beyond a realist interpretation of the landscape to create abstract forms rooted in nature and geometry.

 Uniting the artists in the exhibition is an underlying interest in how geometric shapes, planes and compositions can push representations of land and city into a world beyond reality.

After leaving Rollings College in Florida where he taught for a number of years, John Andrew Rice founded BMC in the hills of Appalachia in 1933.  BMC was a small, radical liberal arts school whose opening coincided with the closing of Germany’s Bauhaus school.  The schools had a similar vision and shared a common ethos—championing the educational experience as an experience in itself evidencing intrinsic value, which meant in part that no degrees were awarded.  Both schools were co-ed long before that had become the social norm, and both embraced ethnic diversity, with BMC accepting African-Americans as students and staff—prior to federally mandated integration—during the Jim Crow era.

Speaking to the similarities of BMC and the Bauhaus, Alice Sebrell, the program director at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (BMCM + AC), said in a 2013 interview that one of the immediate similarities “that comes to mind is this idea of workshops in the arts, that that was the model that they had at the Bauhaus, and was brought here through Josef and Annie Albers.”  Adding that “the idea of experimental performance, theatre and interdisciplinary activities in the arts—that would be a similarity.”  Sebrell also commented that since “the Bauhaus moved—three different locations in its short life—and Black Mountain had 2 different homes,” it did not allow “any sort of entrenched or ridged way of getting into a rut.”  In Germany and in the United States, she says both schools “were living on the edge.”  Pointing out that at BMC “they were always financially living on the edge,” and the final years at the Bauhaus “they too were living on the edge; in terms of the politics going on around them.”

While visiting Asheville last October, I interviewed Pam Myers at the Asheville Art Museum.  Myers is museum’s executive director, and in our conversation, Myers spoke about the museum’s collection—installations and permanent works.

"The Spiral Headed Man" sculpted gates by Lorna Blain Halper (Image: Max Eternity)
“The Spiral Headed Man” sculpted gates by Lorna Blain Halper (Image: Max Eternity)

Upon entering the museum, Myers and I stood in the building’s capacious atrium.  And beginning with a remarkable ensemble of freestanding, sculpted metal gates by a former BMC student, Lorna Blaine Halper, in the following [edited and condensed] interview, Myers first talks about Halper’s time at BMC, her work product and select pieces held in the museum’s permanent collection, saying:

“We have a large collection of Lorna’s work.  You can see in it both the influence of [Josef] Alber’s color—education on her work, and some work in the galleries upstairs.  And with these gates in particular…the line work was very much influenced by Josef Albers, and she stuck with that work throughout her career.  These gates are unique and interesting, because for many years from the time she was a student she created this figure:  The Spiral Headed Man. 

 The Spiral Headed Man was to Lorna kind of an alter ego.  He got to do things in the world that she didn’t get to do.  So these gates tell some about the life and times of The Spiral Headed Man.”

As Myers continued commenting on gates, it occurred to me that legendary pop artist, Keith Haring, might have been inspired by the geometric figural forms of “The Spiral Headed Man,” with Myers they saying:

“That’s quite an interesting…I had never made that connection.  But now that you say it, I’ll have to remind people when we talk about the gates.  She did [Halpern] live and work most of her career in and around New York City. “

Myers and I then turned our attention to face a massive installation consisting of tension-suspended, light tubes, held aloft and traveling wildly down the ceiling in a tumbling stream-like fashion.  It’s one of the many stunning large scale art pieces at the museum by Hoss Haley, and the piece is called “Light Sculpture.”

“In 2012, the museum was doing an interim expansion.  And we were  just stripping out the space bare, and trying to reactivate it through some specific artists’ installation—a kind of reconfiguring of museum spaces in a raw kind of way—because we were about to build a new museum.  So all of this [space] is being renovated, demolished and rebuilt. 

Hoss was part of that team…[he] absolutely understood our desire to make it raw, but to activate it.  And so, what’s the most basic element of light?  It’s a tube.  And he, of course, deconstructed the notion of a fixture—exposed the inner workings and created what I see as a kind of mountain stream that moves through our atrium space and turns the corner to the east wing. “

As we continued walking through the building, we paused to take note of a colored wall installation by Sol LeWitt, entitled “Wall Drawing #618.”

Sol LeWitt · Wall Drawing #618 2014, bands of lines in four directions with color ink washes superimposed Courtesy of the Sol LeWitt Foundation
Sol LeWitt · Wall Drawing #618
2014, bands of lines in four directions with color ink washes superimposed
Courtesy of the Sol LeWitt Foundation

Thereafter, we came upon a massing of finely cut and arranged aluminum ribbons polished to a mirror finish by Sharon Louden, entitled “Community,” which is listed on the museum’s website as “a continued conversation… that traces its path through installation, animation, painting and drawing [implying] dance — movement and energy — transposed against the resistance of fixed squares and rectangles of color.”

Sharon Louden · Community at the Asheville Art Museum 2014, aluminum and steel screws, 192 x 238.5 x 291 inches Courtesy of the Artist and Morgan Lehman Gallery, New York, NY. Photography: Christopher Gallo, Brooklyn, NY
Sharon Louden · Community at the Asheville Art Museum
2014, aluminum and steel screws, 192 x 238.5 x 291 inches
Courtesy of the Artist and Morgan Lehman Gallery, New York, NY. Photography: Christopher Gallo, Brooklyn, NY

After soaking in the LeWitt and Louden installations, Myers and I continued to the upper exhibition spaces arriving in front of another large piece by Hoss Haley, entitled “Cycle.”  I asked Myers about the work, and she replied saying:

“So the work…is about how things cycle.    I always use the metaphor of a ream of paper…two inches [thick] when they’re all lined up, but when you try to write something, and you get frustrated and ball them up and you throw them in the trash, and you throw them in the trash, it could take over the room.”

About the “Cycle” installation, Myers then explains some of Hoss’ fabrication process:

“These [balls] are made of the metal casings of washing machines Hoss finds at the scrapyard.  So he goes out and he strips out all the parts and salvages the sheet metal, and takes it back to the studio where he’s created these tools that allow him to make these wads out of that salvaged sheet metal.  And what I didn’t know until working with Hoss is that the average life span of a washing machine is about 5 years.  So it’s a commentary of what we’re doing to our planet, and on the disposable nature of things.” 

Hoss Haley Cycle, Recycled and enameled steel, 147 x 74 x 75 inches. Sponsored by the Windgate Charitable Foundation. Image courtesy of Aislinn Wiedele, ENNEAD Architects LLP. 2012.02.33.
Hoss Haley Cycle, Recycled and enameled steel, 147 x 74 x 75 inches. Sponsored by the Windgate Charitable Foundation. Image courtesy of Aislinn Wiedele, ENNEAD Architects LLP. 2012.02.33.

Speaking further to the “Cycle” installation, I noted how the piece appeared light and voluminous, as if almost weightless—that to create such an effect out of something as heavy as washing machine parts was extraordinary—to which Myer’s replied:

“Hoss is an extraordinary craftsman, in addition to his ideas.  He totally understands materials, and his relationship to metal, in particular, is just extraordinary.  He’s made it [“Cycle”] so carefully, that there’s not a sharp edge anywhere.  He’s {Hoss] extraordinary to watch work and to watch think, and what I love about this piece is that it was very much responsive to the space.  He really worked with that to create this dynamic cycling motion.”

Contact the Asheville Art Museum at 828.253.3227.

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