The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.
The axis mundi is basically a connection, the center, where two worlds come together. Everyone, everything — every story, every myth, every day — has its own axis mundi, or can. Seeing it requires an act of interpretation; someone has to decide, this is the center, and describe it as such. Sometimes that axial point is hard to miss, like a mountain or a steeple, but not always. Regardless, it is one of the most basic human symbols and tools for meaning making — from the altar to the steeple, to the holy mountain, sacred garden, sacred tree — they are all places where the human and the divine consciously connect. An axis, of course, can be discerned as any pivotal transition point: where one thing becomes another, where the past and present meet, for instance.
And this brings me to the current show by John Fleischer, which uses the symbol of a triangle, “Δ,” as its name. The multimedia installation is on view through April 15 at air sweet air gallery in St. Paul, and you should go see it, plain and simple.
For me, the biggest and most interesting axis that the John Fleischer show confronts and explores is the pathway between representational and conceptual art, between body and spirit, materialism and idealism. In so doing, the installation explores a transition that has been happening in art for some time now. Fleischer’s pieces in the show go back and forth, using different approaches to creating art and meaning, as well as creating a bridge between 20th– and 21st-century aesthetics. I think, in some ways, Fleischer is continuing the work of the conceptual Formalists — the work and ideas of Martin Puryear, for instance — and, I suspect, using their ideas as a starting place.
The centerpiece of “Δ” is a work made up of 33 handmade wooden dowels, barbell shaped pieces separated into three groups of 11, carefully arranged on cardboard platforms a few inches off the ground. We view them from above first, seeing their geometric arrangement, but are quickly compelled to kneel down to get a closer look at the well-crafted pieces of wood — to admire the workmanship, the wood grain, the balance. These qualities speak to a classical appreciation of visual beauty; the wooden rods are, quite simply, beautiful objects.
Next to them is another wooden piece, submerged in wax; beside that is a plastic bucket filled with saltwater and rusting cans. The natural process of decay is an important part of this piece.
The installation’s pieces move back and forth, from the natural world to the manipulated, to artifice, asking us to decide where the axis is situated. Seeing his work, we cannot help but come to the conclusion, at last, that the axis mundi is in our imagination, that art is an imaginative act that we take part in — something we think, feel, and believe into being.
Mold is growing in Fleischer’s glass jars, and its texture and pattern is also beautiful in its own way; since it’s in a gallery, it’s a lot easier to call the mold beautiful than if it were found, instead, growing on something in your fridge. Regardless, even if you wouldn’t ever call mold beautiful, exactly, inserted into a piece of art it still forces us to consider it anew, to freshly question its place: Can mold fit into a larger system of aesthetics? To me, it can, and its delicate, lovely decay (at least in the gallery setting) represents and actually is an example of transition — of change from this to that, from present to past. It’s the kind of thing that happens beyond our control, but which we constantly feel compelled to comment on and make meaning from. Mold and rust, everyday decay, are a part of our present that will become someone else’s past; this piece exists, is actually alive on that particular axis of our meaning making right at this moment. The piece itself shows us how we interact with the world around us to find and create our own axis.
It’s important to note that Fleischer created this exhibit specifically for the air sweet air space, in consultation with Cheryl Wilgren Clyne, the gallery’s mastermind and proprietor. I think this site-specificity comes through in the work: the idea of the process behind its installation, of the gallery being an axis, too, between artist and audience. After all, the gallery is where the two come together in the viewing of the thing to work out precisely what it is we call “art.”
Perhaps art is always moving in the direction of concept, of thought, of contextualization, asking us to bring more to it, just as it brings more to us and challenges us in ever new ways. Or, maybe it just always seems that way, with each generation confused by the next one’s new, ugly art.
The wooden barbell assortment gives us the lovely wooden pieces carefully, tenuously arranged and accents them with mold and rust. It’s all of a piece, it all clearly goes together — but how do we get from one to the other? Where do we fix the center? Where is our balance? What happens next?
The projected paintings, the large wooden phallus — I think these represent the foreground of Fleischer’s art, the present and the past. But the axis mundi in the middle of the floor seems to me the mechanism moving with the flow of contemporary aesthetics, acting as a stimulus for questioning the rest. And the questions it brings up are, to my mind, all about where those aesthetics have come from and where they are going next; how do we use them to make meaning? How do we use them to get us to tomorrow?
Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to katie(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)