'Seeds': Energy Born of Opposites

"Eye Sea," a sculpture by Gail Gorlitzz at the McLean Project for the Arts. (2005 Jay Mallin)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

In brief remarks made during the opening reception for "Seeds," a McLean Project for the Arts exhibition showcasing the work of Gail Gorlitzz and Karin Birch, Gorlitzz explained that the inspiration for her biomorphic sculpture typically comes from two sources: "nature and the domestic." In other words, two things that most people -- at least those with screen doors between the back yard and the living room -- usually try to keep separate.

"I have to force contrast," says Gorlitzz, a kind of matchmaker ever on the lookout for unlike things, out of which she strives to "make a new third." A hurricane lamp in one case, or toy rubber balls in another, might find their way into quasi-abstract pieces that resemble strange undersea creatures or extraterrestrial life-forms.

"If I don't find disparate things," she says of her art, "I'm not so interested."

Birch's working methods, which fuse painting with hand embroidery and hand-stitched glass beads on linen and hemp, also involve a marriage of opposites.

Her first steps are loose: "I usually start with a very abstract, in-the-moment painting," she says. Before long, though, Birch is augmenting that sketch with beadwork and stitchery, both of which involve many, many tiny, repetitive actions, the mechanical nature of which becomes, for the artist, a meditative process. One doesn't just splash on a bunch of beads or tiny French knots a la Jackson Pollock, after all. While working, she may listen to the news, allowing random real-world elements to infiltrate her private thoughts -- as with the bright red blossom shape exploding near the center of one piece called "In the Head." The double-edged allusion of its title refers both to the assassination of an Afghan leader, whose death from a bullet to the head was announced while Birch was working, and to the nature of consciousness itself.

Don't get the idea that Birch's work is political, though.

It isn't about "telling a story," she insists, but about "personal things." One recurrent image in her art is a series of calligraphic scriptlike loops, an "abstraction of language," as she explains, that is forever "unknowable." Unknowable, that is, in any way that can be clearly articulated. Despite its inscrutability, there is something familiar and comforting about Birch's work, even as it is disquieting.

While you may discern two vaguely human silhouettes in "In the Head" -- one standing somewhat higher, representing the artist, the other seated somewhat lower, representing her late, wheelchair-bound husband -- it would be a mistake to interpret Birch's pictures too literally. The same goes for Gorlitzz's sculptures, which one might just as easily be tempted to write off as colorful riffs on nature. In her sculpture called "Continuum," for instance, an efflorescence of orangish fungus, in bead form, eats away at a spiral-cut piece of wood. It's a metaphor for the circle of life.

"Both of us let the unconscious in as a strong part of our work," says Gorlitzz, who describes her process as an ongoing struggle between the artist (who only thinks she knows what she wants) and the art (which typically knows better). When a piece works, it's because the art, not the artist, wins.

For Birch, it isn't just her own unconscious into which she's plugged, but the collective unconscious. Personal though the roots of her work may be, its branches reach out to touch themes that are universal. "I work with the miniature," she says, "to get in touch with the vastness."

That's because, true to the title of the show, both Birch and Gorlitzz's work is ultimately about potential. For what is a seed but a kind of transformation waiting to happen? New life, that is, nourished by the death of whatever came before it, and all in a kernel no bigger than a glass bead.

Even as there's something vital and alive in Birch and Gorlitzz's art, there's also an acknowledgment of something fragile and deeper. That creates a tension between the underlying nature of the work -- its confrontation with morbidity if you will -- and its outward beauty. It's a tension that goes well beyond the contrast between the seemingly quiet domesticity of its making (one imagines Granny in a rocking chair beside a roaring fire, a needle and thread in her hands and a bin of brightly colored beads by her side) and the serious art-world aspirations of its makers.

Out of a man's bloody head wound, or a moldering piece of wood, spring strangely beautiful flowers.

After all, as Gorlitzz says of the aptly named "Continuum," when we look at fungus, it isn't really destroying the thing it feeds off of. It's merely "changing its energy."

SEEDS: GAIL GORLITZZ AND KARIN BIRCH Through Jan. 14 at the McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean. 703-790-1953.http://www.mpaart.org. Open Tuesday-Friday 10 to 4; Saturdays 1 to 5. (Open by appointment Dec. 23-31.) Free.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Jan. 7 from 10 to 11:30 Family workshop: "Beaded Creatures." Make your own creations using beads and wires. $5 per family. Call 703-790-0123.

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