You can make art out of anything. This won’t come as news to anyone who has paid attention to art’s development over the last 100 years or so.
The lesson certainly isn’t lost on local artists Leigh Ann Hallberg and Paul Bright. Partners in life as well as art, they draw inspiration from seemingly unlikely sources and things that others might overlook.
Although they work in different veins and mediums, their respective art practices reflect a mutual appreciation for subtlety and nuance. Some of their recent efforts are on view in a duo exhibition in Sawtooth Center for Visual Art’s Davis Gallery.
Hallberg’s contribution to the show is a series of fabric collages and embroidered linens collectively titled “Murray Bay: Standing Wave.” Most of these modestly scaled pieces were made from blankets that would likely go unnoticed at a garage sale. For Hallberg, though, they’ve held special significance, as she explains in a printed statement available as a gallery handout.
She doesn’t tell us how many blankets she used, but the evidence indicates they were more or less identical, loosely woven from what appears to be wool dyed in subdued pastel shades of blue-gray and yellow-brown. The woven material yields a clearly visible grid, and the contrasting shades form simple, right-angular plaid and striped patterns.
In her statement about this body of work, Hallberg explains that the blankets originally belonged to her maternal grandmother, and that she rescued them when her mother was about to discard them.
The series title name-checks the locale where the blankets were handwoven and sold — a city on Canada’s Saint Lawrence Seaway. The second half of the title names a phenomenon defined in physics — a wave that “oscillates in place without transmitting energy along its extent,” according to Hallberg’s statement, which incorporates an illustration.
Citing as examples the vibration of a violin string and the atomic orbits of electrons, she writes of standing waves as metaphors for woven fabric — “where the strings of warp and weft converge and resonate with one another.”
Having cut squares and rectangles from the original blankets, Hallberg reassembled and re-contextualized these scraps. She sewed some of them together to create collages, and she augmented other fragments with passages of her own hand-sewing. All are displayed on or within relatively unobtrusive, customized wooden frames or presentation supports.
There are 13 blanket-based pieces that measure between 3 inches and 3 feet. Effortlessly highlighted in each are the blankets’ textures and the right-angular weave patterns, which Hallberg exploits as compositional devices.
Most of them read as subtly hued, geometric-abstract compositions and are numerically titled. In a few cases — “Seascape,” for example — the titles highlight visual relationships to stock pictorial subjects. A pronounced vertical seam down the center of one composition reminded Hallberg of a standing figure interfaced with its reflection, thereby inspiring the title “Girl Before a Mirror.”
Hallberg’s statement makes no mention of two pieces in which she repurposed fabric artifacts other than the blankets. Each of them uses an old-fashioned hand towel made from tightly woven white cotton and embroidered in white with the letter “L,” evidently signifying the family name “Leigh.”
Displayed upside down and backward so that the “L” is inverted and reversed, the towels have been augmented with additional, geometric-abstract embroidery in patterns that allude to the wave theory referenced in the exhibition’s title. Their individual titles — “Leighs” and “Nana’s Helix” (incorporating Hallberg’s childhood nickname for her grandmother) — also distinguish them from the other works here.
The other anomaly in Hallberg’s part of the show is “Phenomenological Walk I,” a mixed-media drawing on a sheet of paper roughly 3 feet square. Like the embroidered hand-towel pieces, it goes unexplained in Hallberg’s printed statement, but it shares clear visual relationships with all of her other work here.
Four silver circles converge without overlapping in the center of this multilayered composition, which also features an all-over, two-dimensional rendering of woven fabric and a faint pencil outline depicting bare tree branches. It functions somewhat like a mandala, a visual focal point for meditation, while alluding to the relationship between nature and culture.
Bright is likewise a visual artist — a collagist, specifically. But in recent years, he has expanded his creative output to include sound compositions, in which capacity he’s represented here. His sound piece “Walden (II)” consists of sounds he recorded in 2014 during a visit to Walden Pond in Massachusetts. American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) made this small body of water famous in his book "Walden," about the year he spent living alone in a cabin near the pond.
Bright employed an approach analogous to collage to create this piece, splicing together snippets of ambient sound he recorded at the site. They’re not unlike the sounds any of us might hear elsewhere “in the evening of a wet spring day,” as Bright describes the circumstances under which these particular sounds were recorded.
Doors being opened and closed, distant highway traffic, birdsongs, a creaking hinge, an electronic bell alarm and footsteps on a gravel path are some of the more easily identifiable sounds on Bright’s recording. Odd mechanical sounds can occasionally be heard, and at one point, there is the faintly echoing voice of a woman saying something in German. It sounds as if this lone vocal snippet might be recorded from a car’s sound system.
In a printed gallery handout about his piece, Bright cites a “conceptual overlap” with Hallberg’s work in the exhibition, although the nature of this overlap isn’t readily apparent to gallery visitors who haven’t read both statements closely.
Visitors who confine their experience to the art itself — both visual and aural, without reference to the printed handouts — are more likely to be struck by the sense of sonic displacement Bright’s piece generates. These aren’t sounds one normally hears in otherwise quiet indoor settings, and in any case, they tend to be louder and more emphatic than the original sounds as they were being recorded.
The combined effect of Hallberg’s and Bright’s pieces in this exhibition is rather like that of works that avant-garde composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham presented in frequent collaborative performances.
In each case, two completely different, independently derived works in different mediums yield something more engaging than either body of work by itself.