USDAN Review: John Umphlett's Evolving Resolution

by Maren Johnson '15

Photographs by Autumn Rizzio '14

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            When entering USDAN, first turning right and walking down a short hallway to the vast space that comprises the bulk of the gallery, it at first seems that a strange alien planet has formed itself, of materials simultaneously familiar and foreign, within this pocket of VAPA. evolving resolution, a solo exhibition of work by current Sculpture technician John Umphlett literally bursts through the walls, unsatisfied with the container of the gallery proper and extending, in the form of a twisting length of translucent tubing, into the outer world before it reenters.

            In the center of the open end of the room, a disk made of a milky plastic membrane is supported by slim metal stakes, sharpened into points to gain traction in the wooden flooring as the figure of the artist slowly revolves around a fixed point, driven by the weight of his head. On the night of the exhibition opening he held this position for almost two hours, fossilized on top of a piece of aluminum cast to the shape of his body before the crowd gathered around the circumference of the piece, titled ida.

            In the five years between the time that the schematic drawing on the wall illustrating the basic concept of ida was completed and the time of the opening, the theory suggesting a connection between the recently discovered remains of Darwinius masillae (nicknamed “Ida”) and the human genetic lineage has been proven false. At the time that the idea of ida began to emerge and become tangible to Umphlett, the material considerations surrounding its construction were too overwhelming for the project to become a physical reality: the complexity of the design required a degree of precision unattainable with handheld tools.

            Last spring in Guy Snover’s Introduction to Rhino 3D Modeling class, he saw the potential of Rhino to realize the piece in perfect detail with the precision necessary for it to function as desired. “It was like Rhino allowed me to grow one hundred arms,” Umphlett said. “It allowed me to pack a lot of information [into the rendering], and I was able to envision it, to zoom in and out on different parts of the piece.” With the support of the digital models and the ability to generate physical components using the 3D printing capabilities of the program, construction on ida could move forward unhindered by the intimidating size of the project and its mechanical factors.

            This process culminated with the performance given by Umphlett on October 29th during the opening, where he completed two thirty-eight minute revolutions: during this time, the stress of holding the pose for such an extended period of time caused him to be electrocuted three times by the current running through the aluminum plate supporting his body. To anyone observing, these moments were utterly invisible – “I certainly didn’t want it to be about that,” he said. “It was always important that the current was powering the tray, where I was lying in the position of Ida, emerging through these wings, which are a connection to the piece on the wall or the rest of the work, to flight and the feeling of being someplace intangible or unreachable.”

            Collectively, the work exhibited in evolving resolution seeks these specific moments heavy with the weight of visual and emotional experience. The shrill cacophony of shrieking emitted by thirty eight’s special, driven by the compressed air harvested from seventy-two three liter plastic bottles being expelled through thirty-eight industrially produced dog toy reeds, for instance, causes anyone in its vicinity to become intensely aware of their physical location at the moment it begins to sing. “It’s an experience that you repeat only at those moments, and a lot of this work is to try to slow down the tempo at which we consume work or experience life,” says Umphlett: “in relation to thirty eight’s special it’s your location, and then [your] sensitivity to that sound and how you want to move, or [where] you want to go, or how you want to experience it.”

            The material language of the pieces plays a significant role in affecting the viewer’s intake of the moments they offer up, representing familiar objects (as with the plastic 3 liter bottles of thirty eight’s special) alongside components formed from precious metals and others of more mysterious origins. Polyethylene, the opaque substance from which ida was cut, is traditionally used as a surface on which to butcher poultry and beef; the specific histories of these ingredients serves to inform and enrich the manner in which they construct meaning. “In this kind of a setting, I think that the thing that is very important is that there may be an idea that comes about, but that idea comes through a process of research, like basic research, on history, on material, on material connections, on material combinations. I’m just sort of a junkie for what comes along with the history of something.”

 

            evolving resolution will be on view in USDAN gallery Tuesday – Saturday 1 – 5 until November 28th.

 

Malia Guyer-StevensComment