The spring semester exhibit at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery — entitled Dark Moves — is a collaboration between Fabiola Menchelli & Heather Watkins. Menchelli lives and works in Mexico City, and her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions in Mexico, the United States, and Japan. She was also a visiting professor here at Reed for some time. Watkins, on the other hand, is a local Pacific Northwest artist living in Portland whose work has been showcased at the Portland Art Museum and at other galleries and exhibits across the state. Reed’s Cooley Gallery aims, each academic year, to partner with school faculty and local art communities to bring unique and exciting exhibits that would not otherwise be available to be showcased in the region.
For the creation of Dark Moves, Menchelli and Watkins worked together over a two-year-long period. The artists studied one another’s processes and intellectual interests, discussing readings, and collaborating with curator Stephanie Snyder at the Cooley on the design of the exhibition. Menchelli and Watkins, as artists, were deeply invested in the sensory nuances and perceptual intricacies of luminescence, as well as its orbital complement — darkness, and shadow. In her work with Watkins, Menchelli has stated that “Heather and I kept having conversations about blindness and the experience of darkness — not as a cold and distant place, but as a place to inhabit and observe.” The voids and folds throughout the exhibition become moments of disappearance, reversal, and refraction — particularly in the center of the Cooley, where a hexagonal room with open ends echoes the internal geometries and shadows of Menchelli and Watkins’ work. As viewers move through, and around, the hexagon, their bodies describe a symbol of infinity.
Menchelli’s work is instantly recognizable as the bent, abstract photographs of vivid, yet dark colors. She transforms her color photograms into kinetic, sculptural events. She does this by mounting the completed prints onto a thin, stainless-steel plate that she bends, via machine, along the folds of the image. Menchelli explains: “I make this work in complete blindness in the darkroom, folding the photographic paper and exposing it to various color filters, sometimes solarizing the prints in the developing bath, pushing the image to its limits. The process feels like a blind choreography of unscripted motions—a set of unrehearsed variables that I improvise each time.” The completed pieces become an abstract portrait of the interaction between Menchelli’s body and the photosensitive paper, as they dance in total darkness for hours at a time.
Watkins’ work is more tactile, using paper, wire, wood, and stone to craft sculptures that resemble textiles and drawings deconstructed into dimensional forms. Her work also includes abstract paintings similar to a Rorschach test. Watkins enacts and re-enacts the elements of each installation in situ, over days, and weeks, as though writing or interpreting a text. The work’s phenomenological grammar is her private poetry. In fact, her small, atmospheric ink drawings—Before Things—interpret the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Watkins offers a beautiful description of the process as it relates to her broader vision of perpetual creation: “The works in the exhibition take the process of creation through multiple, successive actions and gestures, each move informed by the last. The ink drawings that I transform into sculptures, for instance, trace my body’s movements as I guide the liquid across the paper, working with, and against, gravity, and participating in their formation in a vulnerable, yet physically immediate way, with heightened senses. I return to them with a blade, tracing their edges, drawing them out, and lifting them into new realities. Freed from their grounds, the fluid lines become something else—spatial, precarious, open, and unbounded.”
Dark Moves is on display at the Cooley Gallery through May 14, so be sure to stop by!