Like a conspiracy theorist searching for secret connections, Academy Records, a collaborative group founded by Chicago-based Stephen Lacy, explores other artists’ work, including Rockhurst University’s Van Ackeren Collection of religious artworks, audio recordings by Academy Records collaborator Matt Hanner, a Fleetwood Mac LP and a story by pulp horror writer H.P Lovecraft.
The exhibition, “Gilded Splinters (Devices I) by Academy Records,” is a multimedia installation of video, found objects, terra cotta, milk paint, graphite and music at Rockhurst’s Greenlease Gallery. It is the third exhibition in Academy Records’ “Devices” series, following showings at the Whitney Biennial in New York and Actual Size Los Angeles.
The first work in the exhibition is “The Colour out of Space,” a large teal-colored geometric diagram eclipsing another diagram. The work takes its name from a 1927 short story by Lovecraft in which an alien entity possessing a never-before-seen color descends into a rural well and sucks the color out of everything in the countryside, making it gray and killing everything in sight.
This opening artwork in “Gilded Splinters” is a visual metaphor of that story, of one force eclipsing and draining its surroundings, but it also plays on Lovecraft’s oft-repeated trope of alien forces being associated with unusual, “non-Euclidian” geometries.
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The main gallery is filled with triangular terra cotta pipes, cut to different lengths and arranged in a pattern that spans across the floor, connecting two geometric wall drawings of circles, spirals and pentagons, made in graphite. Titled “Magnet Draw Day From Dark,” the work physically divides the gallery in half with the gold-leaf-topped terra cotta pieces.
Also in the main gallery, a projection shows a film of a cherry tree in blossom titled “The Bower.” The panning shot was originally 14 seconds, but it has been stretched to three hours. In another corner, a record player plays Hanner’s “No Jets III,” a recording made near an airport during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, in which you can only hear wind and a distant wind chime.
Finally, leaning against a wall, there is a copy of the Fleetwood Mac album “The Pious Bird of Good Omen,” which Academy Records has renamed “A Point Has a Place but No Dimension.” The album sleeve shows a nun holding an albatross.
But there is one almost secret part of the exhibition. If you walk around the back side of the Academy Records exhibition, you’ll encounter an elaborate, gilded-frame altarpiece of a Madonna and Child.
The enormous, gaudy, golden frame is much bigger than the dark-colored painting it holds, and the frame’s crowning arch exactly lines up with the geometric graphite drawings of “Magnet Draw Day From Dark” inside the gallery. The altarpiece itself is mysterious — it is the only piece in the Van Ackeren collection without a placard, and the gallery’s director Anne Pearce is uncertain about its age, thinking it could be a reproduction.
The entire installation has many disparate themes and parts, with some obvious connections and some not-so-obvious connections. “No Jets III” clearly relates to Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space.” The alien force that drains color out of the landscape was an eerie premonition of the effects of nuclear warfare in the 1940s or the collapse of the World Trade Center, during which landscapes were blasted and covered with gray dust.
The golden frame of the unknown Madonna and Child and the golden terra cotta pieces have a similar effect, dividing space, delineating the the realm of the artistic and spiritual from the realm of the mundane.
But other connections are harder to draw. Should we read “The Pious Bird of Good Omen” in relation to “No Jets III” as a rather cold comment on the events of 9/11, that the planes were a “good omen” — a sign of a new world, of wiping the slate clean? Similarly, should we read “The Colour out of Space” in relation to the Madonna and Child, an unearthly force which, with all its unbelievable splendor, renders the rest of the world gray, mundane and dead?
To draw connections between the distinct elements, you start feeling like a conspiracy theorist yourself, searching for connections that may not be there, slowing down the footage, looking for a hidden element or listening for secret messages in a recording of silence.
Although “Gilded Splinters” relies heavily on contextual clues, printed essays and outside knowledge, its enigmatic presentation allows a viewer the opportunity of investigation and personal reflection, but with enough cohesion and integration to provide a pointed, unique experience.
“Gilded Splinters (Devices I) by Academy Records” continues at the Greenlease Gallery at Rockhurst University, 54th and Troost, through Dec. 6. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. For more information, call 816-501-4407 .