Ian MacLean Davis on “From These Woods” by Really Large Numbers, presented at D Center Baltimore by The Institute of Contemporary Art Baltimore

Really Large Numbers is the name chosen by artists Julia Oldham and Chad Stayrook for the art that they make in collaboration, independent of their respective bodies of work. Oldham lives in Oregon and Stayrook in Brooklyn, so the nature and form of these collaborations vary as facilitated by technology and the US Mail.

Journeys, both physical and theoretical, are implicit in their work. Most recently, the two artists were awarded a residency at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space on Governor’s Island in Upper New York Bay, and Artists Alliance Lower East Side Studio Program in Manhattan. The work recently shown at D center presents many facets of their practice, several of which directly spring from these residencies, which concluded immediately prior to installation in Baltimore.

“From These Woods” is the title of the entire installation, but also a video animation, presented in three chapters on flat screens as you enter D center’s space. It was inspired by a true story. In 2010, local news stations reported about a Stag Deer that swam in shallow waters from Jersey City to Governor’s Island, NY. The animations combine stock-style photography, hand-drawn pieced-paper animations, and composited live video to tell a transcendental story based on the true event. Accompanying audio includes omniscient narration by a soft female voice and a male interior monologue of the stag; voiced by Oldham and Stayrook, respectively.

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The form and style of the voice-over/dialogue, animation and writing strongly evoke Joseph Campbell’s myth models and René Laloux’s 1973 sci-fi animated fable “Fantastic Planet.” In Part One, the deer begins his journey and arrives on the island. Across Parts Two and Three, each the same length, the journey of the stag becomes increasingly psychedelic and interior, with the stag in a strange land wandering his new home foraging for food, falling into fantasy occasionally before finding sustenance in forest mushrooms and experiencing a subsequent trip/vision. The entire story plays out over a well-paced 15-20 minutes, and to finalize the story would spoil it.

The animations establish a language of symbols and ideas which extend into a large part of the rest of the exhibition and in broader themes found in more obviously disparate works. On the wall opposite the video screens, a monumental mural painted in black line-work shows a stag emerging from a cage of faceted geometry, floating in free space. Between these walls, in the middle of the narrow space, are three tall poly-angular frames fashioned from 1”x 3” raw lumber and brass hinges. The forms resemble meditation pyramids; structures architecturally designed with specific geometry to focus spiritual energies of those who sit within them. Placed as they are in the room, these sculptures welcome visitors’ entry and passing.

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The true story of the stag’s trek from Jersey to Governor’s is only one example of deer crossing shallow water to find space and food eastward beyond reasonable boundaries. The phenomenon of similar animals crossing water to the islands of Staten Island and Manhattan has not been uncommon in the years following the 2010 event referenced here. It seem preposterous that an animal travel such a distance through strong currents to a these places, and it’s certainly the effect of developmental sprawl encroaching on their natural habitats. In “From These Woods,” the artists reinterpret the forced migration as less than an escape as a transcendental journey. Themes of adventure, travel, and drawing magic from the prosaic continue throughout the exhibition in unexpected ways.

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Beyond the narrow main space of D center, an extensive installation of black ink drawings further extends the story of the stag into a larger animal-based mythology. A wide range of creatures are composed with the same pyramidal forms; textures and abstract shapes seen in the other work to imply quasi-spiritual energies and dimensions, recalling Australasian Dreamtime artwork. In one, five similar foxes float and dart around a central fox enclosed by a circle. Emerging from the perimeter of the circle, curvy-inky pools of star space swirl and frame the animals. The central fox is the largest in the drawing, and the others shift sizes dramatically along with a scattering of pyramid structures similarly scattered and varied in scale.

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The overall effect is that the central figure is the physical form of the animal, and that everything else represents energy, fantasy, and metaphor. Another drawing centrally features a large bear, standing up and roaring. Superimposed over his middle is a matrix of overlapping triangular shapes, creating a shifting, emerging star-form. Behind the star, the furry hatch-marks shown throughout the bear collapses into the texture of a dotty star field.

In the “From These Woods” animation, the artists themselves appear with similar geometry imposed on them to create a clear association between themselves (or their characters) and two specific frame-forms. The geometry in these drawings imply a similar avatistic equivocation. In the language of this exhibit, animals and humans, the spiritual and physical, and natural and constructed worlds collapse into a common story of life journeys both ethereal and concrete.

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“Air Traffic Control” is a 2-screen video shown on opposite corner walls via equally-sized flat-screens. In the left screen, Chad walks into a plain room, which otherwise is only occupied by a pyramid structure similar to the sculptures described earlier. A series of paper airplanes are laid on the floor at his feet. He picks them up one at a time, tossing them into the structure, where they disappear through the magic of digital editing… only to reappear on the opposite screen, streaming into frame to in an exterior space where Julia is ready to catch them. She is wearing an aviator’s cap. She flails with signal-corps motions to guide the flying objects to her landing area, but the motions seem slightly sped-up.

While Chad’s side of the piece seem precise, Julia’s is cartoonish, in a “Benny Hill” sort of way. The audio that accompanies the piece, from each screen, are dueling documentary audio of the eponymous control tower operators. While Chad’s “launch” portion of the video is grounded and methodical, Julia’s flailing response on the landing side is worthy of the soundtrack of Boots Randolph’s “Yakkey Sax.”

It’s interesting that the Vimeo video of an earlier installation of the piece is in some ways more effective than the real-life experience of it. On Vimeo, the audio is clear and the site is strengthened by the way the installation includes sculptural elements. This example highlights the shifts and compromises that are made from space-to-space, which allow ideas – and their efficacy – to evolve.

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To the left of the installation is another, similarly silly, performance film, “Feather Bomb.” Acting as a monumental screen for the projection, an inflated weather balloon hangs from the ceiling of the gallery. In the film, the artists, outfitted in protective gear, first fill a weather balloon with shredded feathers and then move it to an air compressor waiting out on a flat snowy field. Then, they inflate the balloon until it bursts. The way the footage is shot and edited amps up both the drama and absurdity with close-up insert shots of the artist’s faces and fiddling with the compressor, occasionally cutting to slowed-down long-shot of the scene as the balloon gets larger. When it finally does burst, it happens quickly, but then the action is reversed, slowed down and repeated extra slowly to maximize the wonder of what would normally be lost to normal sight.

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The theme of journeys is most literally and romantically embodied in their installation/performance “Whale Star,” tucked in the corner opposite “Air Traffic Control.” I was fortunate to have seen the performance in full during the opening reception for the show, because the props and staging alone only convey rough ideas without the connective tissue of narrative.

The performance is centered by a large unfinished lumber structure decorated with nautical signifiers such as a ship’s navigation wheel. Outfitted in a climbing harness, Oldham is hung on the front of the “ship,” with a toy piano strapped to her chest. Stayrook is seated on-deck behind her, behind her with an acoustic guitar and mic’d amplifier. Above them both is a tall pole outfitted with two clamp lights (a mast) with a video of moving ocean projected on the wall behind them.

Over the course of thirty minutes, the performers alternate modes of storytelling between repeated song motifs, pre-recorded epistolary readings from a seaman’s journal, and staging changes that imply a story of lovers separated by obsessive folly. It tells the story of a sailor who has left his love to pursue a whale, a loaded-symbol that quickly establishes a debt to “Moby Dick.” When the focus of the performance shifts from stern to bow, spotlights direct our attention from Stayrook to Oldham as a figurehead maiden siren-singing sadly of abandoned love. While she sings, plinking out simple accompaniment on toy piano, he flips a switch on a fan which inflates a 15-foot whale sculpture surrounding them.

When her song ends, the whale deflates, lights shift back, and the cycle begins again. The story ends as plaintively as it begins, not with a joyful reunion, but with uncertainty, regret, and loss. There’s a playfulness in the rest of the work that is barely recognized in “Whale Star.” Perhaps the performance was intended to function as a counterpoint to that whimsy seen in all the rest of the work, and I suppose it does. However, inflatable whale aside, the piece is a shade too self-serious, which made it feel overlong and a little bit of a bummer.

When reached for comment about the choice of the name Really Large Numbers, Julia Oldham explained that it is meant to evoke the idea of something “impossible to grasp, but is irresistible to [not] chase after.” The name is well-chosen, as ambitious and conceptually-layered as the work. After my first visit, the impression I was left with was, What a handsome show. I don’t understand it, and it may not make any sense, but I’m interested. Even in the more clearly narrative work, there is still mystery and wonder that draws us not into the answers the artists arrive at, but the questions they ask themselves.

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Author Ian MacLean Davis is an Artist, Writer, Educator and Curator living in Baltimore City. He is a 2006 MFA graduate of the Mount Royal School of Art at MICA. His artwork has been exhibited nationally and is collected internationally. More of his art writing can be found on What Weekly and he has been a contributing writer and photographer for BmoreArt since 2012.

The ICA Baltimore is a collaborative, volunteer-run collective of artists and curators that identifies regional and national artists for solo show opportunities and presents their work in partnership with project-appropriate Baltimore City art spaces.

D center Baltimore is a broad cross-section of disciplines and individuals invested in improving and encouraging design—in all its iterations—in the Baltimore region. D center’s members believe design thinking has the capacity to change the world and that banding together in creative collaboration will greatly improve the quality of urban life.