Is wallpaper a mere decorative background or one of the fine arts? Providence artist Alison Owen takes up this question in "Divisibility," a new show in the David Winton Bell Gallery. Using found objects arrayed in rectilinear geometries, Owen plays off the gallery's architecture to create a delicately understated exhibition.
Though "Divisiblity" is Owen's first solo show in New England, it incorporates her by-now-trademark technique of responding to the gallery space in her art. First, Owen takes up the square motif of List Art Center's lobby and uses it as an organizing principle for her wallpaper-style appliques, which are arranged in grids. "I try to draw attention to the underlying structure of spaces, and to the things that usually go unnoticed, like frames and pedestals," she wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "(I) was interested in responding to the building on a purely aesthetic level — how can I take elements of (architect Philip Johnson's) design and allow them to flavor the show?"
Second, and less conventionally, Owen uses found objects from List as part of her art. She gathered dirt, dust, sand, tape and candy wrappers from the building and glued them to the wall patterns, giving the wallpaper shapes their color and texture. The artist wrote in the gallery notes that she attempts to make visible "the things that have become invisible due to their commonness: the dust we sweep up, the scraps we throw away, the materials we rely upon but rarely see. By paying attention to these artifacts, I interact with everyone who has built the room, remodeled it, cleaned it, or lived in it, and hold all of these past actions in a fragile balance with my own."
Upon entering the gallery, one is struck by the minimalist nature of "Divisibility." Most walls remain white, and the floor-space is open save for a single display case. "I typically work in a sparse and minimal way," Owen wrote to The Herald. "I suppose I had to hold myself back from commenting on every single grid found in the space (there are many) but my aesthetic preference is toward subtlety. I wanted there to be a balance between the emptiness and the pattern, to allow the room to have an active part in the conversation."
The logical place to start browsing is the explanatory text and artist biography on the right side of the rear wall. A grid of thin white threads hovers a few millimeters in front of the paragraphs, casting a barely perceptible shadow.
Below the text, the grid contains Owen's wallpaper forms, an array of arcs and diamonds that brings to mind patterns found in traditional kitchens.
Moving clockwise, the viewer passes by the entrance to the Bell Gallery's larger exhibit space, currently home to "Pictures from the Hay: Celebrating the John Hay Library at 100." Maya Allison, the Bell's new curator, wrote to The Herald in an e-mail that the timing of the shows was not coincidental.
"I proposed to have Alison Owen come in and do a show that would in part respond to the ‘Pictures from the Hay' — her work has a wonderful decorative quality that reminded me of medieval manuscript illumination," she wrote. "In a way, I see this project as her way of ‘illuminating' the exhibition space as one might ‘illuminate' a manuscript with decoration around the text."
According to the curator, Owen used patterns from the archival tomes in the Hay exhibit as inspiration for her wall coverings. For her part, Owen wrote that she hopes visitors find resonance between the exhibits.
The wallpaper patterns continue along the right wall, this time aligned with the door handles of the Hay exhibit's entrance. The squares within which they are inset mirror the grid established by the lobby's stone floor, though the thread boxes are actually about an inch wider.
Owen placed the show's most evocative piece, a partially disassembled frame, on the right wall as well. The bulk of the pine wood frame is covered in glass but empty of any art; its foam-board back sits further down the wall.
Silhouettes of the frame's cross braces can be seen on the board, suggesting the piece was faded in the sun. The disassembled frame evidently relates to the "divisibility" theme, "how we divide up life into portions of work, cleaning, creative expression, leisure, and so on," according to Allison.
The exhibit's lone display case sits near List's entrance, aligned with the doorway to the inner lobby. Owen applied some of her dirt-covered wallpaper to a square of sheetrock, affixed a wooden molding, and bored 24 nails into the board, stringing white thread between them. She also used gold leaf for parts of her pattern, a seeming reference to a gold-painted, parchment scroll in the Hay exhibit. The juxtaposition of all Owen's media in a delicate geometric configuration makes this piece the show's most striking element.
On the gallery's left wall is an immense grid of light gray paint, one line of which continues around the entire room; a few punctuating dots are added to the grid here and there. Owen placed her most colorful wallpaper patterns surrounding the entryway to List's lecture halls. Green and yellow pieces of tape are visible in the pattern of four-pointed stars; that the stars are clustered near the floor suggests a gravitational influence.
Coming full circle, the visitor ends up on the far wall, onto which four more wallboard squares are attached. Each one exhibits a different pattern, yet none contain gold leaf or have the delicacy of the glass-encased piece. On one, for example, thread is stretched across 27 nails in patterns of three; the use of these particular numbers cannot be accidental.
The "divisibility" theme running throughout Owen's show is its most intellectually interesting element. According to the artist, the genesis of her work came in part from a sentence she once read: "Dust is proof of the divisibility of matter." Her use of dirt and dust (a byproduct of Brown coursework, no doubt) enables the show to work on two visual levels — the wallpaper patterns from afar and the individual grains up close. Her handmade patterns resemble mass-produced ones, blurring the distinction between decorative and fine arts that arguably came with modernity. Owen's dialogue with Philip Johnson's modernist building is also effective, for the architect's incessant use of squares and right angles almost cries out to be broken up.
Yet Owen's exhibition is perhaps too fragmented and understated. Despite the appliques, the gallery walls remain mostly blank and colorless, the floor is bare, and the show intentionally has an unfinished feel. Rushing through the lobby to class, it's likely many students will not realize they're in the midst of such meaningful artwork.
The Bell Gallery is open to the public weekdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. An opening reception will be held Sept. 10 at 5:30 p.m. "Divisibility" and "Pictures from the Hay" both run through the end of October.