Enter into the spacey room whose white walls expose on its surface, to put it simply, artistic expression: personal thoughts, abstract forms, observations on America’s financial institutions, varieties of color, a mixture of medium, and ultimately, a stimulating artistic exposition from two of Sarah Lawrence’s own faculty who naturally are professionals in their métier. Right on our campus in the Barbara Walters Gallery in Heimbold, abstract drawings and photography by Visual Arts faculty members Michael Vahrenwald and John O’Connor are being displayed, from now until October 27th. This faculty art show is the first of many to come throughout the year.
John O’Connor’s works of art are visually energizing; finely detailed drawings of bold and bright colors sometimes intermixed with text, his works are essentially formal abstractions of literal ideas. Read into the art, and each piece has a special source of inspiration for O’Connor, therefore looking at a piece isn’t just a “passive experience” for the spectator.
Viewing his drawings is an investigation, and of the art showcased, the one with the most flexibility for this kind of activity is Drug Loop, a large-scale drawing of colored pencil and graphite on paper. O’Connor reflected on his own personal experiences in the creation of this piece, as with them all, more or less, illustrating the complex and continuous problem-solution loop that develops from medication. One can begin with a “headache”, and move either left or right on the circle to the other possible side-effects that generate, like “insomnia”, “rapid weight gain”, and “no sex drive”. O’Connor drew the center of the piece after designing the interactive circle, taking brain scans from two different people, one with Alzheimer’s disease and one with a healthy brain. From those he created the larger form by tracing and flipping the combined brain scans over and over, “allowing the shape to grow organically … It was as if the specific shape of the original scans began to multiply and mutate, almost fractally, and eventually started to invade the medication ring.”
Each piece of his work has an interesting idea behind the form, for example, jumbled up sentences from his own sleep talking that he’s morphed into a “creature”, to fascinating “found” pieces of graph paper filled in with numbers in erroneous patterns (someone’s attempt to predict the winning sequences, or rather, their “attempts to understand and predict randomness”). The scientific abstractness of his art will allow your mind to wander as you view it. Check out his website for more of his art, along with some short descriptions of each.
Michael Vahrenwald’s selection of photographs of “re-purposed and defunct financial institutions” from Manhattan and beyond is part of a larger series named The People’s Trust. A highly conceptual project, Vahnrewald is visually communicating the relationship between money and society, suggesting that it is possible to understand the values of our culture through the lens of these financial institutions of the past and their legacies. “In a sense,” says Vahrenwald, “I’ve been investigating a particular economic ideology as a lost cause that has now fallen into a minor history of economics in our culture’s present fixation on everything global.”
For example, one of the photographs representing a former financial building that has been commercialized is the S Jarmulowsky Bank in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Canal St. Now the “storefront” is a closed down “Happy Shabu Shabu” restaurant. The building is covered in graffiti, dirtied down, and even missing what was probably a shiny clock right in the center, above the front entrance. The photo captures the emptiness and despair of a once thriving monetary center.
The rest of the series emulates his theme of these left to be forgotten financial institutions, initially classically designed (corinthian and ionic columns, even tiempettos!), and now overtaken and subsequently run down by commercialization and ironically, the economy itself. Other structures presented are the First National City Bank of New York on Broadway, a Provident Loan Society of New York building in Brooklyn, and the North Side Savings Bank in the Bronx. Vahrenwald comments further, “It’s a bit of an afterthought … but I’m delighted at how this sense of schadenfreude produced by the images relates to our current economic crisis and maybe offers a response to the way in which the relatively small number of banks with huge amounts of money and power have been treating the majority of the people.”
One may notice the visual inconsistency between the two artists. Where O’Connor is abstract, Vahrenwald is concrete. In exhibiting together, Vahrenwald describes mixing their two bodies of work being a bit of a “risk”. Despite this unexpected tethering of art, their presentation is effective and thus so is the show- their art is interesting to look at, for different reasons and in a variety of ways. There is much to be uncovered in this exhibition. Beheld in the art and beyond the form, inside the scene within the frames, is a kind of treasure: an introspective game to be played in your own mind, in regards to O’Connor’s artwork, and thought-provoking, even unsettling cultural realizations on behalf of Vahrenwald’s photography.
Michael Vahrenwald, who has also been at Sarah Lawrence since 2010, is currently teaching Digital Photography. He got his BFA from The Cooper Union, and his MFA from Yale. John O’Connor, who is currently teaching Advanced Painting, Drawing: A Big Evolution, and Drawing: Translating an Invisible Word, has been a professor at Sarah Lawrence College since 2010. He received his BA from Westfield (MA) State College and his MFA and MS in Art History from Pratt Institute.
Image credit: Kaungset Lin