Materiality manipulated

A reminder that art is a hands-on activity
Friday, March 13, 2015 8:41 AM EDT
Image:  Torre Di Vetro, Due, Unique C-Print, 40″x30″, Robert Calafiore

Twenty years ago, when Robert Calafiore wanted to teach his art students how to make a pinhole camera, the instructions were pretty straight-forward: Cut up a few pieces of cardboard; make a box; pierce a small hole in it.

Today, he spends a day teaching them how to use a ruler. How to mark a quarter of an inch. How to cut a straight edge.

Calafiore, assistant dean at the Hartford Art School, is not merely carping about the deteriorating knowledge base of the next generation. As an artist and art teacher, he’s concerned about the lack of motor dexterity, and, worse, lack of connection to the physical world artists manipulate.

“The finger-tap solution that technology has created for every problem has resulted in people who are removed from the physical world and lack sensitivity to their own bodies,” writes Calafiore, curator of Five Points Gallery’s new exhibit “Objects and Ideas” in Torrington. “Even the use of one’s own hands as powerful tools has become a challenge to harness. Combined, the loss of refined manual skills and ability to think for oneself —take risks … break away from the pack — has led to a level of homogenous thinking and doing, in my opinion, never seen before. More access has become less understanding. Nothing special, nothing unique, and nothing left to ponder.”

The nine artists Calafiore has gathered in this exhibit, which ends Saturday, all explore these issues of materiality and manipulation. How much contact must an artist have with the material with which he or she works? Does it matter? In a world where most images can be or are altered, does the palpable connection to canvas or clay have any value?

Take the four rather unusual looking wool throws by Rose DeSiano in the front gallery. Here is an example of material at war with artistry. DeSiano has taken photographs of war reenactments — World War II in most instances, but in one case, Vietnam — manipulated them on Photoshop and then sent the images to an industrial weaver in South Carolina.

The result is a series of bellicose imagery on a material — wool — we associate with snugness and intimacy. It’s a juxtaposition, but so is the idea of sending a photograph of a manipulated image through a machine to create — art? Similarly, Lucy Helton’s “Actions of Consequence,” a large, horizontal black-and-white ink jet print of what looks like a moonscape, plays with the notion of industrialized art. The lunarscape is imagined, but the pixels that created it are real enough — or real-ish, to invoke Stephen Colbert.

In both cases, artists transgress traditional notions of artmaking. But Calafiore does the reverse. His stunning photographic images of glassware — a signpost of his Italian-American upbringing — appear to have been digitally manipulated. They are not. These eerie, neon, electrifying works of fire-rimmed orbs and aqua ellipses are actually made using a pinhole camera, that most elemental of photographic tools, and exposing the image to the light for 45 minutes or longer. The result is a horizon of fantastical shapes and glowing, freakish globes. It’s a wildly exotic landscape that is as elemental — and phantasmagorical — as you can get.

So, too, Nathan Carris Carnes’ “Teething Wall,” an assemblage that looks like a collection of bulbous plastic teething rings plastered on a wall. The rings themselves, orange and yellow bubbles of textured paint, have the weathered, slippery look of a baby’s toy. But they are, in fact, ceramic, individually molded mounds of porcelain, manipulated to look like mass-produced infant baubles.

It’s the blurring of the line between computer-generated and hand-drawn that magnetizes viewers to the work of Scot MacCluggage, whose monochromatic, linear works look like snapshots of radio frequencies or voice registration across a computer screen.

But these dizzying images of Venetian-blind-like horizontal lines are hand-drawn lithographs. MacCluggage varies the width and irregularity of the closely placed lines so that they appear digitally generated. Looking at them up close is dizzying enough. But step away from pieces like “Cassette Signals Converted, and an image comes into view.