Kicking off The College of Wooster’s 2011 art show season, professors Bridget Milligan and Walter Zurko debuted and spoke about their respective projects, “Fireside Tales” and “ÖA Matter of Time,” which they each made during their most recent sabbatical from the College. Milligan worked with photography and digital art techniques, while Zurko made sculptures.
Milligan’s series focused on storytelling, which she feels has greatly impacted her work throughout her career, and how technology has both enhanced and hindered storytelling within cultures. “So much of what I do is bundling up the past to give it back to the present,” Milligan explained. The exhibit consists of two types of photographs: wet collodium ambrotypes, a technique she explained dates back to the 19th century, and photoshop multimedia collages. Milligan took the photos in Ireland, where she studied local folklore by exploring the country, studying documents at University College and interviewing local people about the folklore they grew up with.
Milligan explained that the ambrotypes felt appropriate since many of the folk stories she based them on dated from the same era, and that she “wanted to convey a sense of mystery” with the digital pieces. The effort was successful; the whole series is haunting, complex and fascinating.
Ambrotypes are done on glass, which is layered over a black backing that creates the black and white dimensions within the image. Milligan explained that the process is painstaking; the first image took her two weeks to create. It “creates a fascinating play between clarity and ambiguity or dreaminess, which forces you out of your time into that of the image and [in these ways] mirrors hearing a story,” Milligan explained. The result looks antique, yet the pared down imagery creates a dialogue between past and present, indeed transporting us to a distant time and in turn evoking questions about our relationship with stories, technology and history.
The collages are incredible, and cannot be viewed briefly; Milligan layers bits of fairytales and legends from storybooks, her own drawings and paintings and the photographs she took in a way that blends so naturally you might miss an important aspect if you don’t take time to explore each piece thoroughly. Both collections evoke a sense of antique wisdom and mystery, and the collages in particular lend a modern voice to the stories being told.
Milligan used the common motifs of animals and hand-drawn or painted starry skies; the animals, she said, are meant to seem caught mid-story. She succeeded in her effort to portray them as fantastical yet plausible; a group of rabbits dances on a rock as a dog lurks nearby, and as Milligan pointed out, the scene is not real yet creates a sense of possibility. Similarly, she used segments of text from stories but omitted certain words and let sections fade into the imagery, creating a sense that we are looking into one moment of a story. Part of the magic of a story, Milligan said, is that it picks up bits of text along the way; she explained that the bits of text both convey this idea and show the story frozen in one point of time.
Zurko, too, explored a relationship to the past through his series, in this case the lost art of craftsmanship and trade, while also toying with ideas of freedom and captivity. “I want my work to reside in that squishy place between dichotomies, [such as between] artist and craftsman, art and fine art,” Zurko explained.
This series represented a turning point for Zurko’s art, he said, in which he both moved forward and returned to ideas he had explored in the past. He entered into it without a distinct idea of what he wanted to do, and the project, which he has worked on since 2008, only really began to take its current shape last summer.
The first piece on the left in the gallery is a wooden basin with a lead backing, treated with milk paint and beeswax, which create a subtle complexity, visually somewhat similar to a honeycomb. The basin is propped against the wall, with two legs coming out of the top and two out of the bottom. There are imperfections within the basin itself that Zurko struggled with, and which almost caused him to scrap the piece; these small details, however, have caused many people to take particular interest in this piece, Zurko noted.
Some of the sculptures primarily utilize wooden cages; these, Zurko said, represent ideas of containment and release and places of agency, activity and charge. Two of these pieces are small wall installations in which the cages are painted and, Zurko said, create a juxtaposition of East and West, old and modern. “For me,” Zurko added, “they’re kind of funny, or humorous.” Other cage structures sit in the middle of the room; one of these is a tower of unpainted wooden cages that range from wide open to closed, creating a sense of the many levels of captivity and freedom possible.
For other pieces, Zurko utilized gourds, including at least one with a hole in it. This gourd birdhouse idea was inspired by artists such as William Christenberry, Zurko explained. In this particular piece, the gourds hang on a signpost. Some of the gourds are dipped in plaster, enhancing the sense of depth within the piece.
This show was the first of several to debut last week, and more will come out every week for the rest of the season, as senior studio art majors are presenting their independent studies. Kitty Zurko, the art museum curator, noted that seeing their professors go through a similar intense, lengthy process could be encouraging for these students, a notion Walter Zurko reiterated when discussing his long, sometimes frustrating creative process that led to this breakthrough series.