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Monday, July 13, 2009

Roy Staab Works in Concert With Nature

Art Review

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­­In an era fraught with inconvenient truths, the art world offers little comfort in the form of giant stainless-steel balloon animals, or sharks suspended in formaldehyde. Revisiting site-specific earthworks, like those of Milwaukee-based artist Roy Staab, feels especially relevant. "Roy Staab: Four Seasons/Four Corners"at Inova/Kenilworth brings together more than 30 years' worth of the artist's work,comprising drawings, photographs, a series of video clips and two site-specific installations.

The breadth of Staab's oeuvre provides insight into his progression from blueprint-like, geometric line drawings to large-scale, site-specific sculptures using native elements and environmentally sound construction methods. The exhibition, which runs through Sept. 27, features two new installation works: one within the gallery, Inova Dragon, and an outdoor piece located nearby that will open Aug. 18.

A series of three photographs taken of Moors' Monitor on a single day in July of 1998 are evidence of Staab's understanding of the work's impressionistic qualities. As the light changes and the tide rises on the edge of Provincetown, Mass., the two concentric circles and ellipse suspended in air on a cage of reeds in Moors' Monitor mark the time. Their shadows inscribe shifting lines on the sandy earth beneath. By late afternoon, the tidewater covers the earth and reflects a double image, multiplying the circular patterns and drawing illusory, expressive lines on its surface.

In the screening room, a series of video shorts provide temporal context, documenting the installations' dynamic interplay with the elements. In Topanga Cockscomb, an installation in California from 2004, a tuft of reeds at the top of a hill blows slowly back and forth in the Santa Ana winds, highlighting the tensility and grace of Staab's lines, and his sensitivity to the way in which the work interacts with its surroundings.

With site-specific work, context is inherently everything. Presenting it retrospectively is a curatorial challenge, and the difficulty lies in providing the viewer with enough documentary evidence to grasp its ephemeral nature through more permanent media. Photographic and video documentation are comparatively poor but essential surrogates for such work, but in combination with the interior installation, "Four Seasons/Four Corners" provides a multifaceted, holistic view of Staab's work.

Suspended from the ceiling, Inova Dragon is a collection of four undulating ropes made of invasive, non-native reeds cut from along the highways west of Milwaukee and bound with bits of jute. In profile, its sinuous lines are interrupted by the rigid right angles of the gallery's architecture; its pillars stand at attention like cold, pale sentries. When viewed from the eastern wall of the gallery, however, the ropes seem to push back on their confines. Inside the gallery, the drama in Staab's work lies in the struggle between nature and man's concrete impositions. Outside the gallery's walls, Staab creates site-specific works using not only three-dimensional elements but also time, space, and light as sculptural materials. They reflect a tacit understanding that beauty lies not in the tension between the artist and nature, but in concert between them.

2009-07-13