“Two exhibitions, both alike in dignity, In fair New Harmony, where we lay our scene.”
– from William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet –
What does it mean for a place to be new? The practice of naming places after what was known is hitched to the covered wagons of Manifest Destiny. New can imply hope, signal a fresh start or a dream of utopia. New also claims a timeline, a marker of past and a different present.
Malagasy Landscape I by Docey Lewis
411 Gallery in downtown Columbus has split its space, and the two current exhibitions serve as vantage points into the artistic culture of New Harmony, Indiana. Upon entering the gallery, to your right hangs the work of Docey Lewis a New Harmony resident whose self-curated exhibition Entanglements features works of paper, fabric and silk cocoons. If you turn left upon entry you’ll arrive at Utopian Visions, an exhibition featuring curated works from the New Harmony Clay Project Artists-in-Residence collection. Each of these exhibitions works with its own logic and navigational pulse. However, as one settles into the space, the exhibitions draws attention back and forth, rebuilding the gallery space from within, as “a house divided against itself cannot stand”*. Together, a form of new harmony is presented.
Gallery view of Utopian Visions
As a writer from Bloomington, and with the show in Columbus, it’s hard not to see the combined show as a form of portraiture of the town of New Harmony, Indiana. The artwork speaks with pride for its town. New Harmony is a small Indiana town located along the Wabash River - think Rutherford Falls or Schitt’s Creek. Originally called “Harmony”, the town was first established in 1814 by George Rapp of the Harmony Society, a settler group of Lutherans who separated from the official church.** The town was then bought by Robert Owen, a Welsh businessman who wanted to play out his fortune with an experimental socialistic community, newly naming the town “New Harmony”. While Owen’s experiment lasted only a few years, New Harmony was built upon the Indigenous homelands of the Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo) Kaskaskia, 𐓏𐒰𐓓𐒰𐓓𐒷 𐒼𐓂𐓊𐒻 𐓆𐒻𐒿𐒷 𐓀𐒰^𐓓𐒰^(Osage), Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), Myaamia, O-ga-xpa Ma-zhoⁿ (O-ga-xpa), and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples. What might harmony mean with a recognition such as this? The two exhibitions address this, marked by the titular concepts of utopic vision and entanglement. While New Harmony is a linchpin for the show, and as the show will be up over the Thanksgiving holiday, this very same dialogue is applicable from sea to shining sea.
Docey Lewis’ work leans into the materials of fibrous and natural process, featuring layered and quilt-like constructions. Upon entering the gallery, CERANCHIA II, hangs over a white table, like a tablecloth taken up by a strong breeze. After viewing the entirety of Lewis’ exhibition, this piece by the window takes flight, as if the exhibition was its cocoon. Looking straight to the back wall of the exhibition is REMIX, which is explicit in its visual connection to quilting and reuse. Interestingly, this work uses the trimmed edges of wallpaper from a workshop in Nepal, calling to mind a similar work of quilted law books, Still Rising by Samuel Levi Jones installed last fall for the exhibition Paper Pavilions at 411 Gallery. Lewis’ buzzes with the intrigue of a 19th century “cabinet of curiosity” but gains deeper resonance when considering the personal nature of the work; Lewis has worked for “forty years in over forty-five countries'' according to her bio. Particularly significant for this exhibition, Lewis founded a weaving factory and commercial design studio in the Philippines in the 1980s, received a financial award from the World Bank in 2000 and currently advises, alongside her son, with a weaving and papermaking factory in Kathmandu, Nepal. Lewis incorporates many of these traditional practices and materials in her exhibited work. For the artist, the work has a status of ephemera.
Kozy Cocoons III, IV, V by Docey Lewis
Lewis is certainly cosmopolitan, but are these works simply by-products of her international business work or do they serve as means of a travelogue? The parallels to Western Imperialism and Orientalism are complex, but Lewis’ work can be read as celebrating the cultures which are now accessible via global infrastructures. Lewis cites “slow cloth” as a way of unplugging from international life, allowing her to settle into peaceful contentment in her own backyard: New Harmony. Perhaps slow isn’t the right term – though I realize its trendy applicability, i.e. slow food – because Lewis is working with materials from industrious, living organisms (silkworms), as well as with material practices from vibrant cultures, often labeled antithetical to the speed of the West’s development. Interestingly, Lewis identifies as self-taught, but perhaps she would consider the traditions of Nepal, Madagascar and other places as where her training comes from. While these critiques are important, the choice of natural materials and Lewis’ personal pace of her work in Entanglements allows for dialogue on these themes to be heard.
Gate House Plates by Kari Woolsey | Fractured Symphony by Kritika Soni
Discontent by Kathrine Chandler | Eye of God Dice by Yoko Sekino-Bové | Coming to Terms with Henry by Donna Causland
From the harmony of paper, silk and worms, we move to the earth, to kiln fires and hazy glazes. The exhibition Utopian Visions features works from the New Harmony Clay Project Artists-in-Residence archive. Many works reference ceramic traditions of high class and object centered materiality. Pastels of Trix yogurt-lavender and cotton candy-creams set the tone – I can almost smell Earl Grey steeping. A tea kettle, Coming to Terms With Henry, builds on an Alice In Wonderland treatment, and a series of purple platters, Gate House Plates, featuring what looks like marshmallows from children's cereal. Other ceramic works exist in idiosyncratic materials, such as Eye of God Dice, which also references 12th century porcelain pillows. The immaterial is addressed as well, such as with Twins, which are abstracted wildlife tracks made three dimensional. While color unites many of the surfaces, many works feature material stepping through to center stage: Stonewear shows the cracks in a bend in Folds of Memory 01. Handbuilt pieces expose their underside, marked by the fabric pattern of the slab roller in Fractured Symphony. This is not your grandmother’s china. The exhibition falls in step with NHCP’s mission to “foster an environment that supports the investigation of new ideas and work in the ceramic arts”. Pottery, like weaving, has been with human beings since the prehistoric era, shaping its function with time. New Harmony as a location has formed these artists and their works. The mission of the NHCP, still has a twinkle of Robert Owen’s utopia, and these works are imprinted as such.
Malagasy Landscape II by Docey Lewis
The current joint exhibition at 411 Gallery asks us also to consider two worlds: that of the earth, and of those who crawl beneath it. But beyond that, by providing a form of portrait, it asks what harmony looks like. A new harmony is not to be found. But perhaps a person can become in harmony when they embrace the interwoven, entangled realities of dreaming and hope. Harmony need not be new.