Drew Zimmerman

Two Artists Interact in Dynamic Muse Show

You could make yourself crazy waiting for the art-going public to treat your art to even a complete sentence of reaction or criticism. Maybe people are fearful of divulging what moves them in a work because they believe one should have training in art criticism first, before being entitled to an opinion, though I doubt it since the public considers higher education so much ivory-tower mumbo jumbo. Maybe visitors to a gallery are afraid to express their positive feelings about an art work out of reluctance to be identified with a losing cause, just as I know Philadelphians who love baseball but won’t admit to being partisans of the Phillies. Or maybe visitors to a show think “Awesome!” or “Neat!” alone are useful criticism without offering supporting details of any kind.

Many examples of vivid personal reactions to art appear in Muse Gallery’s June 2016 show “Containers and Boundaries,” a joint exhibition by Bonnie Mettler and Kylin Mettler, mother and daughter artists who react to one another’s work by physically adding to it. Unlike the passive viewing we are used to in a conventional show, this installation provokes a dialogue between artist and highly engaged viewer, and their demonstrative reactions become the focus of the exhibit. The show’s call-and-answer formula gives visitors a small window into the vast landscape of the creative process. It also says much about the Protean nature of being, where labels such as “mother” and “artist” blend seamlessly or assert themselves and their primacy.

According to the notes to the show, "'Boundaries!' was a short cut word in [the Mettler] family that meant:'You have crossed the line into my territory. I love you, but step back.'" Recognizing that everyone--and especially family members--is entitled to assemble a personhood and defend it from outside challenges, the Mettlers also name the conditions under which artistry takes hold and develops.

In the piece Right to Assemble, Bonnie Mettler depicts a grouping of fragile containers that seem to be under the threat of a destructive, grinding machine. Kylin Mettler comes to the rescue by recreating those threatened pieces in three dimensions, effectively preserving them from harm. "Right to Assemble" not only refers to a constitutional prerogative, it calls to mind assembly as a description of what artists do, as in the work of Joseph Cornell and his use of museum forms to represent the accumulation and preservation of identity. As a boundary is an ever shifting but autonomous territory with its own rules, a container refers to a static accumulation of memories and objects that is the self.

Kylin Mettler selected her mother's painting Knowledge for inclusion in the show, a vivid portrayal of herself as a naked child next to an apple tree and holding a piece of fruit. Kylin's expansion of the frame is a small pile of crocheted apple cores on the gallery floor under the portrait. Only the child of an adept portraitist who has grown up next to a parent's vision of their infancy can appreciate the effect of the portrait's depiction, at once glorifying and categorizing. Kylin's additions create a broader period of time than Mom's portrait by itself inhabits and extends the knowledge of the artist's child into an art sensibility of her own. By adding the representation of her own maturity to the heirloom, Kylin Mettler hijacks the image and controls its meaning.

Mother Mettler proves that two can play the game of changing the boundaries around a work of art in her additions to a pair of her daughter's pieces, When It Wasn't and Almost Baby. Kylin uses a crotched blanket with squares flying loose from the main organization to symbolize a deeply personal conflict threatening her marriage. When It Wasn't uses linoleum-block prints to show the artist experiencing the grief of her relationship's collapse.

With a steady pencil on the gallery wall, Bonnie Metler draws a thin frame containing the blanket and its disruption. The addition suggests the unity of her daughter's experience. "It is what it is" is a modern colloquialism representing reconciliation to catastrophic events, an attempt to categorize particularly painful occurrences as not implying shame or guilt to those who suffer by them. For the companion piece that shows Kylin in attitudes of grief, Mother has drawn with her pencil on the wall a strand of barbed wire. The artist is also a mother, defending by whatever means her aching daughter.

None of the oils Bonnie Mettler is exhibiting in Containers & Boundaries have frames, which in a post-Modern world means more than thrift or insufficiency. We should supply boundaries and lock in our labels only with a heavy dose of irony. Any meaning derived from experience is arbitrary and words express the right to dissemble. The late novelist David Foster Wallace employed the device of footnotes in his fictions to represent the impossibility of finding the last word anywhere. The June 2016 show at Muse Gallery contains about fifteen installations where artists transform the meaning of various works by thoughtful additions to them. Along the way, they invite visitors to consider the tentativeness of categories of art and, by extension, the labels we apply to ourselves.

--Drew Zimmerman, 2016

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