Subject Matters: Holding Nothing
Joining the Artist's Journey
When we enter the Villa Julie Gallery, we see a form composed of connecting puzzle-like shapes of varying thickness hovering just above the floor. The assembled shapes folded slightly to the left of the center are gently undulating while the shapes to the right of the center are arranged on one plane.
As we look up to the left corner of the gallery, there's a second form, also suspended, but tumbling down and touching the floor, a "foot" on the earth. We see suggestions of body limbs and wings -- the forms are airborne and lively. These abstract original forms conjure shifting meanings and allusions. They possess energy and suggest movement. Their colors are those of fog on the land or rain on the surface of the sea.
As we turn, we come upon a soft green "sky" of calligraphic markings, which creates a set for discovery and awakening. The Zen-like markings, enlarged to super-human scale, give an aura of communication with an inner spirit. Slowly rotating in front of these pale marks are two networks of dark linear webs floating and twisting gently as celestial bodies in a vast non-worldly space. Like the sculptural forms, these clouds or celestial ships are not specifically identifiable but poetically suggestive -- as subject matters, holding nothing. They also express a dynamic presence, revealing essences rather than referring to known physical forms.
A third sculptural form, first spotted opposite the entrance, lures us closer as we continue to explore the gallery space. Related to the view of the trees, sky, and land we see through the window, it has its own life as it cascades down from the ceiling.
As we look further, we see the surprise and poetry found here are balanced by an underlying order, and even by mathematics. Each of the solid sculptures has been assembled from 12 shapes, shapes that have taken their start from geometry. These positive shapes derive from, and correspond to, the negative spaces created by the web images on the wall. Made of the same 12 parts assembled in varying combinations, they relate to one another yet they have been assembled in unique combinations. The spaces between the assembled shapes and their edges connect them visually to the dark webs on the wall.
Strategically placed within the visual unfolding of the room and our experience of the sculptural forms and the painted wall, are three open webbed constructions made out of linked apple limbs with irregular organic knots.
Two pieces are in a rectangular format, arranged diagonally on the walls. A third is more sprawling and map-like. It has some dimension, like an imaginary topography. The artist describes these constructions as expressing the "lay of the land," as if to imply she is giving us the truth, laying out for us the way things really are - offering us a view from the inside. These elements refer more to an interior landscape than to geographical surfaces.
Together with the wall painting and three dimensional sculptures here, they are metaphorical, not pointing to physical reality, but rather to a reality that is within -- spiritual, awe-inspiring and majestic. We are invited to explore, imagine and experience -- coming here we join the artist's journey.
Each step that has brought Linda Bills to this spot has been one of discovery, an evolving process where serendipity, logic, and intuition mark the essentially spiritual search. Reviewing her pathway gives heightened awareness of her quest and the seminal place the works in this exhibition hold in her development.
Initially, Linda Bills established herself in the field of crafts, specifically basketry. But, at the same time she created some useful objects, she made many non-functional baskets. Simultaneously with turning to sculpture as her medium, content grew in importance. She also increasingly positioned technique so that it supported the meaning of her work.
In the new works, the effect of the high degree of workmanship is that, through nuance and subtlety, we look carefully, slow down, and let the exploration unfold. For the assembled puzzle shapes that compose the central forms, each created from glued sheets of luan plywood, Linda Bills varies the thickness, thus enhancing the linear quality of their edges.
The individual shapes are held together with hardware known as "shackles" which have been dipped in acid to subdue its original shine. Each set of plywood shapes has also been stained different colors - two shades of green and one of gray blue-with one side stained a lighter shade and traces of the wood grain patterns left visible.
Five years ago, Linda Bills surprised herself when she made an open wire structure, rippling with life, and suspended from the ceiling. Its creation caused her to ask herself questions. Does this object represent a cloud or is it a cobble? What is the difference between the two?
The answer that satisfied her was that it could be both, a spiritual vitality that is shared. The shifting meanings began to fascinate her and open up direction for new thoughts that have impacted her work ever since.
An exhibition a year and a half ago at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, was also significant for her newest explorations. There, she presented two important works, Pivotal and Pairings. Each sculpture was composed of two linked three-dimensional forms, playful variations on geometry. One was a closed form and the other an open form made of apple limbs. She dramatically increased the scale of the pieces, so that the sculptures had a new physical relationship to the viewer. Pursuing the expression of vital force in sculptural form, they had a new subjective connection, too.
She also introduced the open webbed constructions made out of apple limbs for the first time. During the course of the exhibition, Linda Bills changed the configurations of the parts of the sculptures, something implied by their shapes. She also changed the locations of the webbed constructions, not letting the viewer stand still along the path of discovery.
Scale and increased presence of the forms marked new points on her path. The textured surface of Pivotal opened still more new possibilities. As a result of the surface markings in Pivotal, in the fall of 1999, Linda Bills was invited to be a visiting artist in printmaking at the Maryland Institute.
A month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center that fall also gave her opportunity to explore how to move from three to two dimensions. She began to create a series of prints that directly relate to Pivotal. Using luan plywood for plates, she hand-cut as well as routed out markings and then she printed the plates in relief on Rives, Asian or handmade papers. Pursuing the direction of the "cobble/cloud," she made a linear network image, this time carving it out of a wood block and then printing the image on top of the relief prints.
Along with calligraphic markings and an open web image, the prints from the series that Linda Bills' has completed possess a third element of solid abstract shapes also printed from a wood block.
In this exhibition in the Villa Julie Gallery, the painted wall is an enlargement of a design based on one of her prints. However, Linda Bills' design did not include the solid shapes found in her prints. Here the three large-scale sculptures in real space take the place of the solid shapes that appeared in completed prints.
During the process of conceptualizing the new works, she thought in terms of placing what had been a two-dimensional form in three-dimensional space. The play between two and three dimensions, the linear and the sculptural, echoes and reverberates throughout this gallery, giving visual unity to the space. Pursuing this idea, she explores the formal shifts between imagined and real space, thus deepening her poetry.
A May trip to Ireland this year contributed to her most recent intuitions. Her experience of the landscape brought greater perception of deeper, spiritual wonders and here, in her exhibition, she is saying that as in nature, so in art. The abstract images on a wall of vast space, in dialogue with poetic sculptural forms, create a unified place of gentle lyricism and energy that is almost tangible. We look back and forth between the "sky" and the sculptural forms and the inter-relatedness of all the elements. We sense their links to us and to nature. We ponder their poetry and beauty. Here in this gallery, the artist awakens within us recognition of our own interior realms and we are encouraged to move along our own paths of spiritual discovery.
Nancy Miller Batty
From the Artist:
I wish to acknowledge Stephen Dallmus, my husband, for his on-going belief in me along with his many hours of dedicated work and Jennifer Wallace, Poet, teacher and inquisitive fellow traveler; along with the following for sharing their generous time and expertise without which the making and exhibiting of this new body of work would not have been possible:
Quentin Moseley, Chair, Printmaking, Maryland Institute, College of Art, for his invitation to explore my artist's voice through the media of printmaking; Vermont Studio Center for a month long resident fellowship; George Ciscle, Curator in Residence, Maryland Institute, College of Art, for his interest and insightful criticism; Nancy Miller Batty, Chief Curator, Delaware Art Museum, for her diligence and enthusiasm in undertaking the writing a curatorial statement for this exhibition; Diane DiSalvo, Exhibitions Director, Villa Julie College, for embracing my desire to exhibit work in their distinctive space; Erica Hickey, studio assistant and Ashley Sawyer, Goucher College student intern for their many hours of hard work; Marilyn Powel, Director of Development, Center Stage, for putting me in touch with their Technical Director, Tom Rupp who freely shared his wealth of information specific to my project as well as Mark Moreland and Jim Veenstra, both of The Valley Craftsmen Ltd.
Special thanks also to Paul Bosse, Bush Greenbeck, Gary Reif, Jana Rice and Walt Wilson of the Villa Julie College community for their most generous assistance.