Palmer Gallery exhibit explores importance of abstraction

Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News.

We’ve been told stories our whole lives. From simple nursery rhymes and bedtime tales with clear moral takeaways, to the increasingly subtler works of fiction we slowly introduce ourselves to, our notion of what a story is grows in tandem with our familiarity of the art. We learn that capturing the essence of something is not as easily done as we once thought. Not only do illustrations feel insufficient, but so do pages of prose. Some stories find themselves incapable of adequate representation by traditional means. And when artists consider this conundrum, they may begin to abstract what exactly it means to call something a “story” or what it means to give something “meaning.” One way to tackle such a quandary comes through the works of “Imploding Meaning,” an exhibition demonstrating the very cruciality of abstraction in telling the stories seemingly impossible to capture by typical means.

         “Imploding Meaning,” the latest Palmer Gallery installation, opened Thursday, Jan. 19. Featuring the works of four artists, M. Pettee Olsen, Michael Oatman, Rosanne Walsh and Monica Church, the show seeks to demonstrate the significance of art in conveying meaning to ineffable concepts, summed up nicely in the exhibition’s tagline: “Tale-less Tales About Absolutely Nothing And Everything In Between.” The installation features various works each with their own unique style and confluence of messages to be gleaned.


One of the exhibition’s most visually striking and unique pieces is “The Ook,” by artist Michael Oatman. Comprised of a 50-foot long collage book, folded into sections, “The Ook” brings together a collection of various images from Look Magazine, newspaper brochures and many more random ones that Oatman came across. He sought to embrace the found-ness and chaos of life in the piece, describing how the making of it provided him the opportunity to process his cancer diagnosis and served as a respite from weeks of radiation treatment. Even while having to carry the tremendous burden of a potentially terminal illness, “The Ook” speaks to art’s ability to promote perseverance and the joy in simple things, like a two-mile walk to an artistic studio—trips during which Oatman discovered many of the images for the collage. On what the project meant to him, Oatman described, “I would still have a way to communicate: in pictures, with collage, a material/cultural dialogue that I have employed—and enjoyed—for 40 years,” as per an inscription by the work. It speaks to the cruel, unshakeable randomness of life, something that can give someone a diagnosis of possible death, while also one that could provide for the creation of something truly beautiful all the while.


Many of the installation’s works are acrylic paintings, sharing a similar aura of abstraction. Monica Church’s “Every Cloud has a Silver Lining,” painted on composite sail material, is a work dominated by grays and whites, whose one discernable, fluffy cloud shape embraces the color scale to create the titular silver lining. This was a piece that I found particularly touching when considered in the context of “The Ook,” which also shares  similar themes of beauty from sadness and the optimism that art can communicate. These two works, one a 50-foot long folded collage book, the other a painting, demonstrate precisely what the exhibition was seeking to preach: Artistic messages can come in many, many forms with no one style better or more apt in the noble pursuit of conveying meaning.

Ganesh Pillai/The Miscellany News.

Another particularly striking painting is M. Pettee Olsen’s “Red Turn,” which utilizes synthetic and luminous paints on canvas. While some of the painting is similarly dominated by grays and whites, it communicates a strong sense of chaos and disorder through its use of red paint layered atop of the grays with no discernable pattern. While a grid-esque collection of lines is painted above the red, the majority of the painting feels entirely random, unable to be described or put in a box. Embodying the abstractness of “Imploding Meaning,” Olsen’s work is very much up to each viewer’s interpretation, with the only undeniable quality being the talent and care put into the piece


This collection of work in the Palmer Gallery invokes a genuine wonder and curiosity within each viewer, encouraging visitors to think about what a given piece may mean to them and what it could be seeking to communicate through its features, whether they are easily discernible, or more abstract in nature. This exhibition allows us to consider art as not simply an amalgamation of one message, but rather as the vessel through which people can form distinct, unique connections and interpretations, one in which a myriad of perspectives and themes can be considered and taken into account.


“Imploding Meaning” is open now in the Palmer Gallery and will run through March 1.


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