Two worlds beautifully co-existing, Bermudez and Marcuse dual shows at List Gallery
Natalie Sandstrom reports back from her visit to the List Gallery at Swarthmore College. Read further for her analyses of the two exhibitions on display: Henry Bermudez's "Tattooed Nature" and Michelle Marcuse's "Holding Absence." Both shows close tomorrow, February 23, 2020, so catch them while you can!

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Henry Bermudez, "Tattooed Borbures" 2019. Acrylic paint, digital photograph, mixed media mask, paper. From Henry Bermudez: Tattooed Nature at List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstorm.
Henry Bermudez, “Tattooed Borbures” 2019. Acrylic paint, digital photograph, mixed media mask, paper. From Henry Bermudez: Tattooed Nature at List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstorm.

Currently on view at Swarthmore College’s List Gallery is a pair of shows: Henry Bermudez: Tattooed Nature; and Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence. At first blush the work in these two shows is very different: abstract cardboard sculptures in the back room (Marcuse), and organic cut-paper paintings in the front (Bermudez). However, as I lingered in the space I found more connections than just the overlap of paper and paint materials. What emerged for me was the experience of each show as an installation. The longer I spent with Bermudez, the more enveloped I felt in his dark landscape. With Marcuse I was wooed: the subject of a material flirtation. These exhibitions, I concluded, are not so much about the individual objects on view (though there were, of course, some standouts by each artist), but about the mood so effectively created by the accumulation of such objects in the gallery.

Tattooed Nature creates a 3-dimensional shadow fantasy. A jungly, Kara Walker-like sensibility emerges from the black cut-outs: vines and flowers winding behind and around nude or masked figures. The masks are beautiful, and draw you in to look closer, rather than their hooked beaks pushing you away. Like a poison frog, their colors threaten to injure. The works create a sense of introspection and quietude, with an underlying threat. Like laying cozily in bed when a stray bout of anxiety grips you. The work is powerful, independent, self-assured. The figures in “Tattooed Nature, 2 Bodies” (2019) are not objectified by your stare, but rather have you transfixed. There is something mystical about their bare bodies and the way they meet your gaze in life-size: fates, muses, fairy godparents perhaps. The works are clearly delicate when viewed close-up–hung by strategically placed push pins within the black cut-outs–but from afar they are monumental and fierce.

Henry Bermudez, "Tattooed Nature, 2 Bodies" 2019. Acrylic paint, mixed-media mask, textiles, paper. From Henry Bermudez: Tattooed Nature at List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.
Henry Bermudez, “Tattooed Nature, 2 Bodies” 2019. Acrylic paint, mixed-media mask, textiles, paper. From Henry Bermudez: Tattooed Nature at List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.

Even the smaller, non-figural works like “Black Night II” and “Tattooed Tree on Black” (both 2019) hold their own among the tapestry-like cut-paper paintings. I found myself captivated for a long while by the mysterious color in “Luz de Luna” (2019). It’s reddish undertones remind me of skin, or perhaps menstrual stains. There is a life force behind the flatness of the black pattern that cannot be pinned down. Certainly the reference to the moon in the title of the piece adds a mysticism to the work.

Visitors are able to peek between the galleries as if looking at a portal between worlds. On one side there is large flatness, dark colors, and reaching foliage. On the other: cubism meets cardboard, human-sized 3D sculptures that seem to make up and omit the body in turn. Some that are full and round, others outlined. In both shows there is a sensuality, though on Marcuse’s side that changes from overtly powerful beings to a sense of potential energy from the non-human stand-ins.

Holding Absence hums with budding action. Like the black backdrops of Bermudez’s work, Marcuse’s sculptures cast patterns on the wall in shadow. “Consuming the Past” (2020) is beastly, cloud-like, flowing – perhaps with the potential to form and reform its cardboard components even as you watch it, attached to the wall at eye-level, gripping you in an eye-less staredown. Around the gallery there is a delicacy, but a power, to the work: nests and tornadoes all at once. They are geometric in themselves, doubly so when you take the shadows into account. The layers are Bauermeister-esque, and would surely inspire an artistic director like Julie Taymor to create. The soul of the work feels feminine–perhaps most distinctly embodied in the trio, “Silos” (2019). These hanging works are again bodily and mystical, they sway the slightest amount with the airflow in the gallery. What they would say to Bermudez’s fates mortals can only guess.

Michelle Marcuse, "Permanence, Recurrence" 2019. Drawing, assemblage, paper. From Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.
Michelle Marcuse, “Permanence, Recurrence” 2019. Drawing, assemblage, paper. From Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.

Marcuse, too, has some smaller works on view – “Permanence, Recurrence” and “State I Variation” (both 2019). For me, they got a little lost in the power emitted by her larger work, acting more as points to breathe before reentering, voluntarily, into the dangerous flirtation with her other objects. Surely those pauses are essential to the effectiveness of the larger show, though I did not give the smaller pieces their due time.

While many shows ask for a kind of suspension of disbelief to enter the mind of the artist, this duo was immersive in another way: completing transporting viewers during their gallery experience. Perhaps it was the intimate size of the galleries or the fact that two habitats co-existed (you get in the habit of world-jumping the longer you spend in the space), but this showing at List was a particularly strong invitation for a departure.

Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence
Henry Bermudez: Tattooed Nature
Swarthmore College, List Gallery
January 23 – February 23, 2020

[Editor’s note: To see more of Henry’s work, visit “Henry Bermudez: Wilderness in Mind” at Taller Puertorriqueño, on view until May 2, 2020, with a FREE artist talk on March 7th, 2:00 PM. You can learn more about Michelle Marcuse by listening to this episode of Artblog Radio, hosted by Roberta!]


Work by Michelle Marcuse from Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.
Work by Michelle Marcuse from Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.
Work by Michelle Marcuse from Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.
Work by Michelle Marcuse from Michelle Marcuse: Holding Absence, List Gallery, Swarthmore College. Courtesy Natalie Sandstrom.
Tags

Black Night II, Consuming the Pas, cut paper, drafting, drawing, henry bermudez, Holding absense, list gallery, michelle marcuse, painting, Permanence, Recurrence, Silos, State I Variation, swarthmore college, tattoo, Tattooed Nature, Tattooed Nature 2 Bodies, Tattooed Tree on Black

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