In many ways artist Shea Hembrey is a Renaissance man. His versatility is embodied in not only his talents working in a variety of artistic mediums but also in the nature of the serious subjects his art examines. His most recent work, on view now at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York City, addresses no less than the very nature of existence. Entitled "dark matters," it is his first solo show in the city, and consists of a series of paintings and sculptures that attempt to imagine the unseen structure of the universe.
In describing the show's intent, Hembrey states: "For nearly two decades I have continually pondered dark matter and dark energy—which together account for over 95 percent of the cosmos. The question of these mysteries has repeatedly surfaced in my imagery over the years. This exhibition pulls works from various series where I explore visualizing dark matter, dark energy and prime cosmic building blocks."
According to an explanation by the gallery, Hembrey's still life paintings, called "Unstill Lifes," are "pared down to bits of matter, space and string (referencing the elemental building blocks of base particles, dark matter and string theory). They are painted with fine trompe l'oeil technique to emphasize our continual quest for the real structure of matter." Hembrey's acrylic on board paintings such as "corvus," "align," "signal" and "blossom" are so realistic that viewers may be excused for wanting to touch them to see if the assemblages of twine, bits of tree branches and matches are somehow real and attached to the very inky black background. The color black is used a lot in the artwork, referencing black holes and dark matter. A recent New York Times article on the show—featured in the Science section as opposed to the Arts section— described the blackness as being so dark and "so deep and rich that it connotes not emptiness but fullness."
Four paintings in the show, all acrylic on board, entitled "When Eyes Are Closed," and subtitled "Bedtime Screensaver," "Black Rainbow," "Noon Garden" and "Dark Rain," are explained by Hembrey: "When I first heard about dark matter, the first visual I immediately connected to this mystery was what I see when my eyes are closed: that mercurial, unfixed, shifting darkness. It is a visual that is intimate and continuously available, yet also vast and unobtainable (an apt metaphor for dark matter)." Several of these, in an indeterminate mixture of dark colors, really do seem to convey the tricky to translate "vision" of what appears when we close our eyes. "Dark Rain" presents a pattern of what looks like clear raindrops on a dark surface.
"Universal Portraits" are described as "lyrical sculptures that serve as models of the cosmos", each piece offering "a physical manifestation of the whole of existence—both atomic matter and that mysterious dark matter and dark energy." The top of "map/blanket(cosmic doodle)" looks like a slightly curved blanket or pillow; the whole piece is made out of ordinary items such as toothpicks, lead, foam and cork and is embellished with a Tahitian pearl and an Indian cavansite crystal ball. "Eyelet" is a wheat straw nest or funnel on a pedestal strung with 8 small empty glass bottles. According to the New York Times article, it presents Hembrey's conception of the cosmos, and is his personal translation of a Chinese picture showing the 8 elements of Chinese mythology: sky, earth, thunder, wind, water, fire, mountain and lake. "Raft," a construction employing guinea feathers, amethyst, azurite, garnet, citine, turquoise and other stones, has a totemic feel to it. "Radius," from the "Strewn" series, comprises thousands of pieces of wheat straw, several layers all hand glued, in bands leading toward a hole. A concrete piece that could represent a black hole or the pull of gravitation, it "contemplates the ever-present well of dark energy."
In his New York Times interview, Hembrey said he had long been pondering "the mystery and meaning of dark matter and black holes ... Great art would ask big questions. If dark matter and dark energy are 95 percent of everything, shouldn't we all be asking questions about that? What does that look like? This is me trying to get a handle on that." In trying to do so, and in preparing for this show, Hembrey spoke to a variety of physicists and astrophysicists, one of whom, Dr. Frans Pretorius, a black hole expert from Princeton, concluded that in applying his artistic viewpoint to recent science, Hembrey's artistic models were quite well-informed and thoughtful.
Hembrey first came to public attention when he gave a now much noted TED talk in March of 2011. He explained how he was unimpressed and disappointed by the contemporary art scene and a variety of international art shows and biennales he had visited. He had been longing for work that would be more broadly accessible and that would also incorporate what he calls the three H's, which are head (thoughtful and interesting concepts), heart (passion and soul)and hand (expert craftsmanship), so he decided to curate his own biennale. But instead of curating one, he spent two years (accurately reflecting a true Biennale time period)creating and hand-crafting some 400 samples of artwork by 100 artists whose names, bios, personalities and artwork he totally invented himself. A bravura attempt to answer his own questions about the meaning and nature of art, the result was a self-published catalogue of his work, Seek: The Inaugural Biennal, subtitled "Introducing 100 Creative Endeavors Worth Knowing About." In it, Hembrey employed a virtuosic range of material and artistic styles, including painting and sculpture, clay, acrylics, pastels and still photos depicting studio and outdoor installations and scenes from short films. In an introduction, Calinda Salazar and Fletcher Ramsey, the show's two supposed curators,( also invented), state that "'Seek' is curious about the life of art out in the world … especially outside the 'art world.'"
Following are brief descriptions of only a handful of the Seek artists and their work: Lucy Tran of Biloxi, Mississippi, whose mother owned a beauty salon, uses nail polish to execute paintings that encapsulate the styles of some of those salon clients. The Silent Dobermans, a pragmatic collective from Denver, Colorado, concerned that contemporary society is over-coddled, responded by creating "Horse-Sense Fence," a barbed wire fence in which each barb is flagged by a bright pink band cautioning its sharpness. A couple currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee, came up with 'dig jigs,' a new, invented tradition, a celebration in which people dance on their future grave sites, thereby ensuring their being able to participate in and to enjoy their own funerals (Hembrey's parents posed for the photo at a local cemetery). In "Flipped Earth," Nan Remmel's outdoor installation, a 22 foot long mirror is set into a dirt pit so that viewers can look downward and see blue sky, birds and clouds in a living Sky Garden. In autumn, Ju Hu tapes fallen leaves back onto trees, creating "a large-scale artificial stasis." Quinn Mcleod makes self-portraits as he would imagine would have been done in different time periods and cultural styles in search for an accurate picture of himself. Swiss artist Silvie Slater fashioned lovely pocket-size white gold leaves with moonstone water droplets on them to serve in place of money in case of dire emergencies but which otherwise become precious heirlooms.
Hembrey was born in 1974 in a very rural part of Arkansas, and grew up in a family of farmers, factory workers, hunters, trappers, musicians and cock fighters. His art background is varied, some developed on his own, but he also spent nine years at university, including getting an MFA from Cornell University and spending a year studying Maori art in New Zealand. He currently lives and works in Frenchtown, New Jersey. His plans for the near future are to work on some large drawings and some writing.
To learn more about Shea, please visit, www.sheahembrey.com; www.ted.com/.../shea_hembrey_how_i_became_100_artists
"dark matters" runs through October 20 at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, 505 W. 24th St., New York City. For more information, please visit www.brycewolkowitz.com