Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies ‘in grandeur and in mass’
beneath a sea of shifting now-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined pseudo-podia
made of glass that will bend . . .
So begins An Octopus, a darkly sensuous poem by the late Pulitzer Prize winner Marianne Moore, one of the maritime musings that inspired Associate Professor Katy Schimert’s latest body of work. Novels by Arthur C. Clark, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville and Jules Verne also play into the work presented in Camouflage, Ink and Silence, her new solo show at UMass/Amherst’s University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA). This week the Ceramics department head has been in residence there, taking part in the opening reception and panel discussions centered around art, science and science fiction. Other panelists on the roster include poet and art critic John Yau, ceramist Hosseinali Saheb Ekhtiari MFA 13 CR, art historian Walter Denny and marine biologist Roger T. Hanlon.
Schimert’s new body of work – large-scale watercolors, along with ceramic and glass sculptures – speak directly to the viewer’s subconscious fears and memories of the ocean. Her multicolored glass pieces (such as Lurking Octopus, pictured above) echo the transparency of her watercolor paintings, while her ceramic works “have a luster glaze surface that is both metallic and iridescent” – meaning “it can change color or look like glass, depending upon the lighting conditions,” she explains.
In creating the work, Schimert was inspired by “the mercurial image of a giant octopus lurking below the moiré effect of the water’s surface. I imagined the mythic creature as a hidden sculptural force of fierce emotion, beauty and intrigue. For humans, the deep sea is a silent tomb, and like most stretches of dark nature, it possesses a voice without words.”
Also included in the exhibition are 19th-century marine paintings by Thomas Chambers, whose surface effects have drawn Schimert’s eye since she first saw them as a child. “I have been experimenting with the relationship between surface patterning, which keeps the viewer’s eye moving, and depth of field or perspective, which holds the eye in one place,” she explains.
During Schimert’s weeklong residency she has been acting as a catalyst for public engagement and discussion about the creative process, connecting with UMASS/Amherst’s thriving academic and arts communities through her work and a series of special events. For instance, as part of a comparative literature seminar, she teamed up with UMASS Senior Lecturer Christopher Couch to introduce screenings of classic science fiction films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, the 1902 George Méliès silent film brought to light again recently through the Caldecott Medal-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick 88 IL and Hugo, the movie Martin Scorsese made based on it).
Schimert’s work has previously been the focus of solo exhibitions at the Berkeley [CA] Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. She has also shown work at Pinakothek der Moderne (Munich, Germany), the Aspen Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Before joining RISD’s faculty in 2011, she taught sculpture at Yale University, the University of California/Santa Barbara, New York University and Harvard.
Camouflage, Ink and Silence continues through May 4 at UMCA. A fully illustrated catalogue (with an essay by Yau) accompanies the exhibition.
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