Interpretations of Space and Place

by March Kane

The Grand Rapids Art Museum currently features a tripartite exhibit focusing on the subject of landscape by contemporary artists T. J. Wilcox, Yun-Fei Ji and Susanna Heller, as well highlighting a selection of lithographs by post-Impressionist Henri Rivière, from the GRAM’s permanent collection.

Accompanying T.J. Wilcox’s,”In The Air”, is “Surroundings”, an exhibition of paintings by Yun-Fei Ji and Susanna Heller. Each artist interprets the panoramic format in very different ways: Ji paints traditional Chinese scroll narratives with watercolor ink on paper, Heller uses oil on canvas to create abstract landscapes of New York City, and Wilcox presents the New York City skyline as a film installation projected on to a 360° screen.

The exhibitions are arranged so that visitors must pass through “Surroundings” before entering “In the Air”.  In the first gallery the viewer is presented with the history of panoramic art forms, which can be traced back to first century Rome.

YUN-FEI JI Relocation 2008 13.5 X 39.5 inches

Relocation, 2008, Yun Fei-Ji

Yun-Fei Ji offers a narrative in two scrolls about the consequences of modernization on traditional Chinese life. Developed during the Han Dynasty of China, scrolls were originally meant to be kept rolled up, unlike the manner in which they are typically displayed in museums. They were only unrolled every so often, and viewed with one or two other people. The viewing of scrolls is compared to the viewing of films, because only a little bit of the story is revealed at a time. This is interesting to consider in the context of seeing Ji’s scrolls and Wilcox’s film at the same time. While the two are completely different mediums, they have more in common than I previously thought.

The use of social commentary and narrative are a common theme in traditional Chinese scrolls, and In Three Rivers Migration (2010), Ji depicts the displacement of millions of people from their homes, and the destruction of land caused by the opening a giant hydro-electric power station. Ironically, his paintings appear calm, so the intensity of the narrative isn’t immediately evident. About this Ji said, “Perhaps on the surface things look quiet, but when you look closely, they are stirring and disturbing.” The scroll titled, Burning The Trees/The Ancestor’s Trees (2014), recounts a heartbreaking event, but the emotional element doesn’t immediately register–my experience was that it crept-up later when I got home and was reading my notes.

Susanna Heller Rolling Thunder Night for Day 2013 69 x 238 inches

Susanna Heller’s large abstract paintings like Necklace of Stones (2012), and Rolling Thunder/Night For Day (2013), are inspired by her walks throughout the city. The scale, color, and forms, are commanding and emotive, not what you’d necessarily associate with a walk through the city, which to my mind is  a quiet and meditative experience.

Heller’s loosely formed cityscapes are vastly different from the versions offered by Ji, Wilcox, or Rivière. Her palette is fierce, bold and dramatic. Her interpretations of the New York cityscape are somewhat abstract and jarring, but the chaotic intensity, and built-up surfaces, draw you into the paintings. They remind me of the paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner, not because of technique, but because their interpretations are so expressive. Heller’s paintings also share similarities with Abstract Expressionist paintings by artists like Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning.

Wilcox uses film and video to create a thoughtful, touching and subtly humorous interactive video montage. Wilcox took a time lapsed video of the New York City skyline from his studio, and then projected the film onto a large hanging 360° screen. Into this, he interjected short subtitled films featuring stories and histories of people, buildings, and events in New York city. One of the montage overlays was about the history of the Empire State Building, and it’s relation to the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. When it ends, the uninterrupted skyline projection resumes with the Empire State Building prominently featured. Another short film features a man who recounts his experience watching the planes crash into the World Trade Center on September 11. When his story was over, the skyline snapped back, and I realized that the short was deliberately placed at the spot in the skyline where the World Trade Center once stood. I sat through the complete thirty minutes, mostly alone, (with only a few people wandering in and out periodically) and found the stories very moving.

TJ Wilcox In the Air at the GRAM

T.J. Wilcox, “In the Air”

The screen is suspended from the ceiling and presented well above eye level, so the viewer has to look up, much as you would if staring up at the buildings from street level, but since its filmed mostly from a high vantage point, you’re simultaneously looking up while looking down at the city.

Wilcox takes his cue from the concept of Cinerama, which was introduced in the 1950’s, and paved the way for other popular forms of film viewing such as IMAX. His use of state-of-the-art video recording, editing, time lapse, and projection, speaks to the moment in which we live. In contrast, Heller and Ji’s paintings are clearly tied to painting traditions of the past. The juxtaposition of past and present is deliberate, and evident to viewer.

Henri Riviere, 36 views of the Eiffel Tower, 1902

Henri Rivière, 36 views of the Eiffel Tower, 1902

Henri Rivière’s Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1888 – 1902), can be thought of as an alternative approach to a panoramic art. Rivière’s prints feature the Eiffel Tower from different locations throughout Paris. This series was inspired by Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, and reflects the influence of Japanese art in the 1870s, known as “Japonisme“. By definition, a panorama is an unbroken view of an area and a continuous scene, but I’m left wondering what it would look like if the scenes Revière captured could be put together and “unrolled” around the Eiffel Tower on a 360° screen. What would that look like, and how would that be possible? I’m sure the art of panoramic representation has many more possibilities for presentation as the combination of technology and art advances into the future.

“Surroundings” and “In the Air” can be seen at the GRAM through August 30.

Grand Rapids Art Museum
101 Monroe Center Street NW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat.  10AM-5PM
Thurs. 10AM-9PM
Sun. 12-5PM

Admission: Free to members, $8 Adults, $7 Seniors/Students with ID, $5 Youth
Free Tuesday all day, and Thursday from 5PM-9PM,

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