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Sara Blyth-Stephens: Form in Transit
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
Fort Wayne, Indiana is not known for its exhibition, acceptance, or general practice of producing installation art. This being said, installation art seems to be something that our visual arts community is being drawn to at an increasing pace, as our community bridges the cultural gap which the Midwest sometimes brings (you know, the "we are five years behind" phrase that gets thrown around often). As with any early practice, there is always a large learning curve as artists, curators, venues, and the public begin to acclimate to a new idea or practice.
While there have been other successful instances of installation-based work in Fort Wayne, none have been of the quality of Sara Blyth-Stephens works in "Almost Something," currently being exhibited at the Allen County Public Libraries downtown Jeffrey Krull Gallery. The ethereal influence of Blyth-Stephens' work sits in its ability to suspend our conception of a sculpture and our perception of gravity, simultaneously creating a still moment which represents matter in transit as it cascades through the space of the gallery. These sculptural forms are transitory and almost eschatological, as Blyth-Stephens' work references its own destruction as she allows it to break and burst as it will due to influences in air current and the slow pressures of gravity on these structures. At the end of these installations, which the artist builds on site, she also destroys the work, breaking it up and removing it from the gallery space. By keeping the future of the objects unknown, while allowing the viewer to see the brokenness of the work, Blyth-Stephens' work is uniquely self-referential and objective.
Sara Blyth-Stephens is a Cincinnati based artist, and an MFA graduate of University of Cincinnati. Her work is being shown widely, and receiving praise for its originality and humble voice. While the visible actions within her work take only moments, the construction of "Almost Something" took two weeks to set up and execute, has lasted for nearly two months, and will be destroyed at the end of this exhibition. Blyth-Stephens' work thus takes on a number of aesthetic principles, from wabi-sabi in the Japanese tradition to Minimalism in a contemporary Western view, and her material of choice, plaster, conjures many associations with its matte surface, pure white color, and its rippled surface, still expressing its once liquid state of being.
The center of "Almost Something" is a series of paper-thin gently curved, curtains of suspended plaster, "facing" outward in two circles, with the interior band in human scale and the outer band near waist height. As this writer viewed the installation, there were broken pieces which had slowly fallen over the installations' lifetime, and the pieces themselves swayed, breathing, as the viewer walked through the room. These pieces are rather unique art historically as they seem to be less about the material, and more about the viewers perceptions of the material, though this work is not necessarily minimal or post-minimal. Formally, the work is very similar to Lynda Benglis's cast aluminum or pigmented polyurethane foam pieces like "Wing" which was produced similarly to Blyth-Stephens' work being poured onto plastic sheets and the floor, then harden. However, Benglis's work was centered in the viewer's focus on the material itself, and the physical process of working with those materials. Blyth-Stephens' work, on the other hand anticipate the viewers wonder once they perceive the object, and tease the viewer into imagining the past and future of the material as how it got to this suspended state, and where it will go. This temporality sets Blyth-Stephens' work apart from most all minimalist and post-minimalist artists in art historical record, and pushes her work much further conceptually.
"Almost Something" also includes both pedestal pieces and plaster balloon casts. The balloon casts are especially intriguing in that they keep to the "freezing" of the material while also making a direct reference to the object which was used to produce the effect. Because of the transitory nature of the balloon not being able to hold its pressure indefinitely, thus deflating slowly, leaving a hollowed shell of plaster in the end, as an incredibly organic casing held up on the now-invisible negative form of what was a field of balloons. Blyth-Stephens' pedestal pieces are interesting in that they take relatively concrete forms relative to her other work, and place with architectural concurs more so than other formats of her work. Overall, "Almost Something" is a beautiful experiment in the production of psychological triggers which force the viewer to see into the life cycles of the work itself and the viewers expectations.
Thankfully, the ACPL saw the value in this work, as well as the value in the education of the public through additions to the installation within the curation of the exhibition which include a time-lapsed video of the installation of the work itself, as well as a "touch gallery" for people to indulge their urges to touch the work, by handling fragments of plaster constructed during the pouring process. With over one million visitors a year, the library is a prime location to the educate the general public of Northeast Indiana about less conventional forms of art like Sara Blyth-Stephens' work, and allow them an alternative experience from the everyday. With more attention and patronage of installation work, our arts community will hopefully begin to produce works of this quality as well.
"Almost Something: Installation by Sara Blyth-Stephens"
Allen County Public Library, Jeffrey Krull Gallery
September 7- October 27, 2012
For more information, www.acpl.lib.in.us