Ambiguous and mysterious environments destabilize our capacity to express exactly where we are.
These kinds of experiences often occur when we find ourselves outside of familiar routine: in dreams, on airplanes, in elevators. For a length of time, we feel as if we are outside of time and space, suspended in a blank moment.
The title of James Woodfill’s poetic, site-specific installation at City Ice Arts alludes to these kinds of experiences. The phrase, “The Outside of the Left Side of the Inside,” subverts the idea of locating ourselves specifically in space or choosing one clear answer as to where we dwell.
In a foyer at the entrance to the gallery, Woodfill displays small photographs and medium-size paintings. The artist employs the space to usher the viewer into both his conceptual and physical intentions.
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Unassuming images of the artist’s neighborhood and studio, taken with his iPhone, are indefinite and intentionally generic. Woodfill records only what is common: sidewalks, walls, bricks and weeds. One could be looking at any city, any façade. The images are printed in black and white, making them appear to originate from an indeterminate era.
The four paintings on wood panels are on display with the photographs in the entryway. The artist uses acrylic paint, sanding each of numerous layers of pigment and buffing the surface until it becomes a tablet recording many moments compressed together into a glowing field.
Thus, the photos and the paintings express the same notion of the “fermata” (the title of a collaborative work by D.F. Miller and Woodfill from 1996 and a word that still inspires the artist). A fermata in a musical performance is an extension of sound (such as a note), or lack of sound (such as a rest) to create a moment of sustained presence or absence.
But the idea of a fermata can be used visually as well. The photos and the paintings are present and absent simultaneously, located in no specific place, accrued over time (numerous walks, numerous painted marks) yet existing in one image that can be ephemeral or protracted, depending on how long you look at it and how you choose to understand it.
Moving from the entryway into the main gallery is both visually and aurally dramatic and exciting. The artist has stripped the gallery of lights. Bare tracks remain on the ceiling. Different compilations of tables and workstations are placed at intervals around the austere space. Humming sounds conjure the buzzing of a large engine or blood rushing through one’s ears. There is a sense of immanence, that something is about to happen.
The entirety of the space reads as an evocative stage set for an event suspended in potential. Many tables are covered in paintings, each a field of color so smooth and layered as to give off its own sheen of luminosity in the dimness, much like a panel from the Northern Dutch Renaissance. The paintings and the tables merge. No structure in the space is a single object. All are composites, with relationships alluded to through elegant pairings.
In an interview, Woodfill said, “I want to establish a space in which we can think in new ways about ourselves in relation to the environment. When you are in the installation, you are a part of it, and its parameters shift to accommodate you.”
In this way, the work is intimate, its cool colors and clear angles warmed by a willingness to allow you through, into intimate cavities and canals in which meanings are unfixed and fluid.
A good poem has many meanings and shifts to contain the reader’s perceptions over time. So it is with Woodfill’s “The Outside of the Left Side of the Inside.” Go, and give it some of your time. Its subtlety and rigor will make you think.
As Woodfill says, “to ponder is good for us.”
“James Woodfill: The Outside of the Left Side of the Inside” continues at City Ice Arts, 2015 Campbell St., through Sept. 13. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Friday-Saturday and by appointment. For more information, call 816-820-4105 or go to CityIceArts.com.