March 31, 2013

Art Review: Exciting sculptures, but 'Blizzards' artist is too clever by half


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.

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“A Duet of Blizzards”

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“Musical Buoy in Search Towards a New Shore”

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Common Street Arts, 16 Common St., Waterville

WHEN: Through April 20

HOURS: Noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday

INFO: 872-2787;

ARTIST TALK: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by musical performances by Frank Mauceri, Carl Dimow, Peter McLaughlin and Joshua DeScherer

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.

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Additional Photos

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“Hurricane Noel”

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“She’s Coming on, She’s Coming on Strong”


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