Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Depth: Atropa Mandragora

Alicia Bailey, Atropa Mandragora, 2003,
Glass book with box, pages etched and fired
glass, coptic binding, edition of five, box dimensions
10" x 8" x 3", courtesy of the artist
I often find myself talking with either visual people or literary people (or, as I like to think of them, "look people" or "book people"). Because of this, I've had many occasions to hear arguments in favor of, in turn, the supremacy of the image over the word and the supremacy of the word over the image, especially in terms of communicating ideas. The "look people" will tell you that there is no purer or more effective way of communicating than to come upon an image and, in one instant, see and know everything that you need to know. "Book people" will scoff at this na├»ve approach to knowledge and argue that a logical and linear approach laid out in textual form is far superior to any image. I'm not sure how well the more extreme individuals in each of these groups would deal with Alicia Bailey's Atropa Mandragora. Ms. Bailey's piece takes the best of these two approaches to communication and forges them together by binding plates of glass that have been drawn and written upon. This collapsing of two disparate elements into one is not limited to the visual and the literary. Ms. Bailey's piece uses the medium of glass and the genres of prose and illustration to fuse and blend divergent forms and ideas until it becomes impossible to tell one from another.

Atropa Mandragora takes its name from a plant that has featured prominently in folklore for centuries. Harry Potter fans will not be surprised to read the roots of the mandrake plant resemble human bodies. While the form of the mandragora root does not resemble humans as literally as the plants described in Ms. Rowling's books, there is an undeniable resemblance between humans and mandrake roots. While, certainly, the mandrake/mandragora offers up paths into creation stories and the weirder bits and pieces of folklore, it also draws our attention to the idea of multiplicity--the idea that one thing can be many and vice versa. In addition to being both plantlike and human in form, the mandrake has acquired a reputation for being everything from an aphrodisiac to an hallucinogenic capable of inducing a coma. Quite a powerful plant, don't you think? The hallucinogenic properties, in addition to summoning up images of the psychedelic sixties, reveal the mandrake's status as a symbol of multiplicity. When hallucinating, one can mistake any ordinary object for an infinite number of other people, places, and things. Indeed, given the mandrake's reality-bending powers, it isn't hard to understand how many of the legends surrounding the plant came to be. Simply ingesting a mandrake root can cause a person to lose touch with reality and enter a state of...*ahem*...expanded consciousness--or, as the look and book people might say, a new way of receiving ideas.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

In Depth: Empire

Arden Bendler Browning, Empire, 2010, Gouache and flashe
on Tyvek, Courtesy of the Artist
The world is becoming more and more like a computer--or is it the other way around? With the rising popularity of internet maps that allow a person to virtually "walk" through an area that could be as close as two feet away or as far as half a world away, the lines between reality and virtual reality are blurring at record speed. In its turn, technology has left an indelible mark on how we move through the world. As we walk along a street, it is possible to check one's workplace, one's home, and any number of virtual spaces. Our consciousness is not unlike the window of an internet browser that contains many open tabs. In such a world their is an infinite potential for expanding one's consciousness. Simply put, we see and are capable of seeing more than we were even as little as ten years ago. At the same time, we overlook certain details; certain treasured moments that can only be enjoyed when one's is fully immersed in one's immediate surroundings. It is this balancing act of consciousness that Arden Bendler Browning explores in her painting Empire.

The word "empire" usually brings to mind a powerful political state that is comprised of a variety of smaller territories. This description, however, can be applied to anything from a county to a country. Empires have a little something extra that makes them stick out from all of the other political  units. That something extra is usually a reputation for conquering neighboring political states and the existence of an all-powerful emperor. Browning's decision to name this piece Empire, then, is an interesting commentary on what it means to be conscious of one's environment. There is an implication that the very act of experiencing or seeing an environment--to codify and identify individual elements--is an act of conquest.