Nathalie Miebach’s “Blizzards, Gales, and Ocean Buoys” at Common Street Arts in Waterville is a fascinating show. The gallery looks amazing, and the work sparkles and pops with energized rhythms and childishly bright colors. The works are startlingly exciting and complex basketry sculptures.
Superficially, this is my kind of show: The concept-driven work executed with the skill of a highly accomplished craft artist. Miebach presses the boundaries between sculpture, craft and conceptual art. It’s my favorite stuff: Math, music, science and art. And it’s not afraid to appear complex.
But my first question is whether something is genuinely complex or simply acting complex. And I can’t countenance Miebach’s work, because I can’t shake my take that it’s intellectually (and narcissistically) dishonest.
As an advocate for the public audience, I prefer art that unfurls itself without relying on extensive external justification. And if it doesn’t add up for me — art historian, craft fan, math guy and musician — then there is something wrong.
Still, I think it’s an important show insofar as Miebach touches on a key set of contemporary issues and seeks to put them into play amongst each other. As craft alone, Miebach’s work is genuinely exciting. It even succeeds very well as ambitious sculpture, which, unfortunately, is an endangered species.
But Miebach puts her work into play as semiotically-driven conceptual art, and tells us most of the 10 pieces in the show are “musical scores.” My goal is clear and complete communication, while she is giving us theater. I don’t want to lose anyone with hifalutin’ words like “semiotics” (the study of signs and how they function in systems of communication), and that seems to be precisely what she wants.
But semiotics is where Miebach is at her best, because the ideas unleashed by the term are tied to the genesis of abstraction. Art no longer had to have a picture of something to convey meaning. Early cubism first worked to isolate this idea, and then late cubism — with the manic exuberance echoed in Miebach’s work — set out to explore the possibilities: Systems, meaning, color ciphers, codes, rhythms, etc.
Miebach’s works are basically the translations of weather systems into basketry. They are ciphers: Systems of substitutions (e.g., a=1, b=2, etc.). Miebach takes the keys of weather maps and related forms and creates algorithms to turn them into sculptural baskets and wall pieces.
The artist appears to then have noticed a superficial resemblance between weather data and musical notation. But I don’t think it’s a particularly profound jump to notice that different cipher systems of notation resemble each other. For example, just because the Manhattan skyline looks like the digital readout on your stereo doesn’t mean the skyline is actually a compelling piece of music.
Miebach’s work pretends to have a sophisticated set of meanings, and one of the ideas behind their visual complexity is that viewers assume they would see its brilliant coherence if they had the erudition (and map key) to parse it all.
To call these works musical scores is little more than intellectual camouflage, because any decent musician who can improvise can play something inspired by any visual shifts — skylines, weather maps, apples on a tree or whatever.
This is artistic stone soup. Any pianist, for example, will provide a key, meter and rhythms and then fill these with improvised melodies until it sounds nice. To the listener who can’t read music or understand what’s being improvised, that performance would seem to justify the integrity of the work.
But it’s a tautology. In scientific terms, it’s like Miebach is trying to fool us into thinking her work is accurate (close to the true measurement) because it seems precise (repeatable results). But the appearance of precision is simply the result of Miebach’s cipher algorithms, which are compressed by the limited language of her artistic sensibilities and those of any musicians who choose to play along.
Why do this? It’s visually exciting sculpture. Clearly, a great deal of research and ideas have inspired Miebach, and she wants credit for that. The apparent complexity and skill impress people, and their lack of complete understanding gives the artist a stage to talk about how smart and complicated the project is.
Some movies, books and art are better as food for thought than as immediate experiences. My problem with Miebach’s vainglorious parade of self-proclaimed erudition is that it pretends to be more than it is. She presents it as a refined delicacy instead of merely food for thought.
My frustration is that it actually is fantastic craft (and I love craft) and good sculpture (which I crave). It even touches some profoundly interesting subjects such as the gap between subjective and objective language; the dimensionality of notation; and the relationship of the work of art to notation (which is a key component of conceptual art, music, performance and literature).
Miebach has a piece about Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm.” Junger’s book teaches you about weather and how we predict it in a way that matters — since people’s lives are at stake. Miebach seems to want that emotional engagement, but she hasn’t figured out how. I hope she does.
She might win awards, but that says more about her pitch than her work’s integrity. It reminds me that, judging by popularity, McDonald’s appears to have the best food in the world. What it really does best, however, is marketing.
Let me be clear: I ignore shows I think aren’t worth visiting. But I think Common Street Arts has a very interesting show on its hands. Remember when Toto pulled back the curtain to reveal the man at the controls? Well, that dog knew what theater is really about.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: