For much of humankind, sight tends to be the sense that makes art (indeed, our whole world) most “real.” If we can see something, then it has physical truth. Touch is similarly concretizing. “If I can feel this warm bronze or this cool marble,” we say, “how can it not exist?”

The other senses are less literal. One would not generally say, for instance, that we taste the beautiful fondant cakes of Wayne Thiebaud or that we smell the flowers in Monet’s gardens.

Sound, unless you are specifically experiencing a work by Janet Cardiff, Tarek Atoui or other artists for whom it is the primary medium, is perhaps the most elusive sense of all. Yet, universally, it is perhaps the most omnipresent, alive within all other senses – if you’re listening, of course. It’s potential to connect us to the underlying rhythms of the universe and our own being is the subject – or at least one of the existential subjects – of “REverb,” the intriguing show at Zero Station (through Nov. 12).

Here’s the thing about “REverb”: You can be alone in the silent gallery and still perceive, at the depths of your being, rhythm, echo and audial vibration. You can see it, touch it, feel it. You can even taste and smell it.

The concept of synesthesia – experiencing one sense through another sense – has been around since the 17th century. As that field has proven, we can “taste” a color and “feel” the warmth or coolness of hues (usually thought of as visual qualities). We can “hear” rustling leaves in a blustery fall landscape painting. In our audial perception of Janet Cardiff’s “Forty-Part Motet,” we can “smell” the incense and damp stone scent of St. Jean Church in Feldkirch, Austria, where it was recorded.

Our mind, in other words, free-associates, summoning our past sensorial experiences of certain places, colors, sounds and so on into what we are experiencing in the present.

Anna Hepler, “Cardboard Sketch #2,” 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist

Take Anna Hepler’s “Cardboard Sketch #2,” made from impressions of rolled pieces of corrugated cardboard. We may not initially know what we’re looking at; it seems simply like a meditative abstract drawing. But once we figure out that she has pressed paper to the inked roll of cardboard, the smell of opening a corrugated cardboard box – its dustiness, dryness, earthiness – takes over like a perfume. We feel the horizontal liners that sandwich the squiggly, fibrous medium in between them. And we can actually hear the serrated rrrrip of breaking down corrugated cardboard boxes for recycling.

Lorene Anderson’s acrylic-on-panel works (“Oscillating Signal,” “Pocket Wave Maker” and others) are like watching/hearing multiple waves of sound emerge from nothingness and receding back into it again as it overlaps with echoes of other emerging and receding waves. They arise from the surface panel like a faraway reverberation approaching us from the silent void, achieving full viscosity and color saturation at they’re most present (loudest), then fading away again.

In Meredith Broberg’s “Alternate Technologies” series, the artist seems to articulate the unseen rhythms of nature. She finds a secluded spot in some wooded area near water and creates temporary sculptural structures from drinking straws, wood strips, yarn or string, peony petals and other materials, suspending them in trees and photographing them, as well as their reflections in the water. We can feel the thrum of that repetitive rhythm at the very base of our bellies, hear it like a drumbeat in our ears, all the while also perceiving it with our eyes.

Grace DeGennaro, “Unfolding (Ladder),” 2018, lithograph, 26×16. Photo by Luc Demers

Grace DeGennaro’s “Unfolding (Night)” and “Unfolding (Ladder)” are prayerful and sublime. Her work has always incorporated geometric forms, Fibonacci sequences and mathematical proportions like the Golden Mean, an ancient Greek representation of the perfect balance between extremes. Both are lithographs of an opening lotus form upon which she hand-paints hundreds of tiny dots.

These dots comprise geometric patterns superimposed on the blossoms in a way that emphasizes the ideal mathematical symmetry of the lotus’ shape and their flawless unfolding. At a more profound level, they imply the perfection of the universe. Looking at them is like contemplating an Agnes Martin work, except that the realization of the meticulousness required for the application of dots evokes, at least for me, the sound of a Buddhist mantras, especially “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which translates to “Hail to the jewel of the lotus.” But it could just as easily call to mind Gregorian chants or the repetitive cadence of the Jewish Amidah prayer.

Repetition is a crucial component in summoning the quality of sound in many of these works. In other pieces, however, light and material texture accomplish this task. Ling-Wen Tsai’s “Liminal” works place a translucent sheet of what looks like plastic over a rectangle of color (black in one, green in another) that has saturation intensity at the outer boundary of the frame and fades to white as it moves toward the center of the work. The plastic sheet blurs the lines of the ombré rectangle, softening edges to create the sense of emanation.

Their extraordinarily minimalist composition can look thinly conceptual at first. But stand in front of them for a spell, and you begin to imagine you are hearing sound approaching or running away. It could be a car, a train or the “whoosh” of an outgoing email.

These can all be sensed at a purely physical level. But the show’s larger intentions ask us to contemplate the role that art and artists might play in harnessing sound and reverberation. Can these works connect us to something more fundamental about the universe? If so, can that lead to more alignment to our spiritual nature? To understanding the oneness we are, so that we can quiet our impulse to break the natural rhythm of existence with our insistence on being separate, different, opposed?

The press release for the show, written by gallery owner Jeanne Paterak and fellow artist Tracey Cockrell, quotes Monica Gagliano’s book “Thus Spoke the Plant”: “The ability to sense sound and vibrations is behind the behavioral organization of all living organisms and their relationship with their environment.” Lose our connection to those sounds and vibrations, Gagliano implies, and we lose ourselves. And because everything is connected to everything else, we lose it all. Only chaos and dissonance remain.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.