It keeps eternal whisperings around Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound. Often ’tis in such gentle temper found, That scarcely will the very smallest shell Be moved for days from where it sometime fell. When last the winds of Heaven were unbound. Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired, Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea; Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude, Or fed too much with cloying melody— Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood, Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!
John Keats, “On the Sea”
On view until August 31, “The Whales of August” at Wayfarers is a well-crafted homage to the sea as romantic trope, featuring drawings, video, sculptural works and installation art by Lorna Barrowclough, David (Scout) McQueen, Hondartza Fraga and Joy Drury Cox. Underscoring the artists’ sophisticated formal sensibilities, the works on display are handsomely and exactingly made, and they have been carefully arranged in the gallery in a loose, undulating pattern that echoes the fluid lyricism of a gentle wave. As summer nears its end, “The Whales of August” offers one last seasonal celebration of sand and surf, and this Sunday at 3pm Barrowclough, Fraga and McQueen will also be on hand in the gallery to meet with visitors and talk about their work and artistic practices.
One of the most impressive things about “The Whales of August” is how perfectly it encapsulates the complex ways we think about and interact with the ocean. Examining Barrowclough’s A bed, a knot, a charm – fanciful coquilles, an installation of 100 shells encrusted with glittering beads like jeweled barnacles, I was reminded of a recent afternoon spent beachcombing at Dead Horse Bay, where I wandered up and down the shore picking through a shimmering bed of broken pieces of glass, bedraggled seaweed and rusted metal looking for tiny bottles and prized bits of cobalt glass. Walking slowly with eyes trained on the ground, each object was evaluated on a granular level for its size, shape, texture and color as I searched for the bottle with just the right splay of mold down its belly, or the one shell that looked different enough from the others to be taken home. Holding a shard of a glass Clorox bottle, I wondered where it had come from, who had owned it, how it had gotten there…and I dreamed up a narrative of its origins and history before putting it in my bag along with my other treasures that I planned to later arrange on my windowsill.
The works in “The Whales of August” share a close kinship with these oceanic artifacts in the way that they evoke the senses and form a one-on-one connection with the viewer. Much of the art is small or modestly scaled, inviting intimate inspection, and textures vary from smooth and silky to rough and knotted. The overall subdued palette of the exhibition promotes stillness and contemplation, and also highlights how changes in daylight or movement around the room create subtle shifts in the artwork.
Like the pieces of beach glass on my windowsill, these starkly beautiful works are charged with an aura of mystery, romance and fantasy augmented by the divorce of the subjects from context, function and extraneous noise. Barrowclough’s shells, once functional, have been ornamented and precisely arranged in concentric rings on a platform. McQueen’s sublime yet uncanny sculptural constructions of wooden floors reveal boats and a life preserver rising from beneath their polished surfaces, resulting in ambiguous forms. Similarly, Fraga’s exquisitely rendered pencil drawings capture beached whales morphing into columns of thick smoke or becoming entangled in knots of tangled roots, while a light bulb casts a shadow of a phantom lighthouse.
The craftsmanship of these pieces suggests that the artists work in meditative, repetitive ways not dissimilar from the beachcomber’s intensive focus and attention to minutiae. Whether looking at McQueen’s sanded and seamlessly fitted wooden sculptures, Barrowclough’s tightly looped string net, or even Fraga’s highly tactile and intricate pencil rubbings of book covers, there is an exceptionally thoughtful and studied practice at the heart of these pieces. This is perhaps best exemplified by Cox’s project, Or, Some of the Whale, in which she has painstakingly copied every comma from every page of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick while leaving out all words and other forms of punctuation.
As an archetype, the ocean possesses an inherent duality: it is beautiful and soothing, as well as boundless and uncontrollable. It has the power to both give and destroy life, and its conflicted nature is echoed by the oppositions set up within “The Whales of August:” craft/fine art, figurative/abstract, Baroque ornamentation/minimal art, functional/decorative, intimate/monumental, man/nature, and more. But how are we to resolve the contradictions we face, and how can we continue in the face of a seemingly limitless unknown? Perhaps the beachcomber’s have it: through focus, measured actions and meditation on the here and now, by leaving room for fantasy and imagination, and in always keeping one eye on the shore.
“The Whales of August” is on view through August 31. Wayfarers is open on Sundays from 1-5pm and by appointment. The gallery will be hosting an artist talk with the exhibiting artists this Sunday at 3pm.