I recently went to a screening of the film Handmade Nation at Portland's excellent Museum of Contemporary Craft. And while the movie was good, what really stayed with me was what I saw on my way to the screening room. Seattle artist Mandy Greer's installation Dare alla Luce, which closes next week, manages to combine macro and micro in the most striking of ways: The installation comprises ropy tangles of fabric that hang from the ceiling like primordial chandeliers, shimmering with shells, beads, and buttons. Beaded orbs and stars hover between them, and a huge black pelican holds court in the corner, its mouth spilling streams of sparkling fabric onto the floor of the space. Getting up close to the different parts of the installation, it's impossible not to marvel at the intricacy of each one — what look like random masses of fabric and yarn are carefully sewn, crocheted, beaded, and knotted.
That the mood is simultaneously earthy and ethereal makes sense given the piece's title—"Dare alla Luce," which translates as "to give to the light," is an Italian metaphor for the act of giving birth and a reference to the origin of the Milky Way. (The creation myth has it that the breast milk of the goddess Juno shot into the sky to become the galaxy.)
I'm always blown away by this kind of art, where what appears random is the product of hours upon hours of planning and placement. Not to mention how curious I am about the artists' process: Did Greer know, for instance, where every knotted, beaded, shell-embellished bit of fabric was going to be placed as she constructed them? Where did the shells come from? Did she create it all in her studio, or was she crocheting a bunch of it in front of the TV? (And if she was, would it change my perception of the art if I knew she was watching, say, Law and Order: SVU?)
For the record, you can hear Greer discussing her process here, and you can watch a great video of the, uh, installation of the installation here. But Dare alla Luce reminded me of another artist who invokes the heady wonder of the universe in her work: Vija Celmins. The Latvian-born Celmins creates images that are as detailed and as throught-provoking as Greer's, but in a completely different way: Her paintings, prints, and graphite drawings of ocean waves and night skies are hypnotic and absorbing — even the smaller works offer that disorienting reminder of how very tiny we all are in the face of boundless water and space.
It's all kind of humbling, isn't it?