Capturing the wind

Sommerhauser’s ‘Unlikely Events’ might blow your mind

Brent Sommerhauser, “Ripple”

When I was growing up in St. Louis, weather was mercurial, thunderstorms plentiful and tornados a fact of life. The unpredictable climate generated peculiar etiquette, a series of safety dos and don'ts based on fact and peppered with lore, of which my grandmother was a walking encyclopedia. Goodness gracious, for example, don't talk on the phone in a storm, as the lightning might strike you through the line. Stay away from the picture window when the winds come. And get yourself underground when the sky turns sickly green. Hours ticked by in a candle-filled basement as we listened and waited — just waited — for the wind.

The most exquisite moment was the quiet, as they say, before the storm. If everything died down suddenly, chances were good that a tornado was either about to hit or already had you in its eye. For Unlikely Events at Brett Wesley Gallery, local artist (and Kansas native) Brent Sommerhauser has created a vibe eerily similar to that waiting for the wind: The assembled drawings and objects suggest an event that has either just happened or one whose action has been suspended, however briefly.

The Details

Brent Sommerhauser's Unlikely Events
Four stars
Through May 4, Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Brett Wesley Gallery, 1112 S. Casino Center Blvd., 433-4433.

Unlikely Events quite literally envelopes the viewer in the vacuum of an untold occurrence, in which weight and pressure, wind and air tug at the corners of perception; more than once I forgot to breathe. Time stops and centers on "Column," a dramatic funnel of wood-flooring suspended from the ceiling like a twister just before it touches the ground. Or maybe a wild wind that's ripped the flooring and snatched it, curling, up into the sky? Sommerhauser always does a terrific job of maximizing the potential exchange between his work and the architecture it occupies, each complementing the other. He also manipulates the associative qualities of a material like few others in town, or anywhere for that matter. "Column" is a perfect example: The tunnel of flooring (that magically matches the gallery floor) is held aloft so very solidly that it almost roots the entire exhibition in the ceiling, creating an experience in which up and down turn around, and a surreal, suspended sensation sets in.

Sommerhauser is a great student of the quotidian, sweetly inverting expectations. In "Diver," a balloon of blown glass sinks to the ground, weighted yet inflated, as a branch quivers from the base of the balloon in a rigid line of "string." A chair dives headfirst into the floor for "Sunken Chair," with only its feet and a bit of upholstery dangling above the ground.

But it's the drawings that define Unlikely Events. These ghostly accumulations of pencil marks drift like winter snow or blankets of springtime pollen softly saturating the exhibition, absorbing sound along the way. Up close, the distinct marks appear aggressive and almost haphazard. Clustered, amorphic blobs dissipate across the page or swirl organically into spindly towers, contributing to the sensation of a space suspended in the grips of an elemental force.

They evoke the wind because they are wind, literally. Without exposing secrets, suffice it to say an old vacuum and some cylinders evolved into a methodology that enabled the artist to create drawings based on chance and physics. For Sommerhauser, the drawings are actual "elemental records" or revelations of the displacement of force: "straightforward drawings of wind by wind."


Other shows worth seeing
Reduced Part II, work by Daniel Habegger and RC Wonderly III. Government Center Rotunda, through May 7.
21st Annual Juried Exhibition, Contemporary Arts Center, through May 22.
Double Vision: Two Unique Insights in Fabric and Thread, work by Jean McLaughlin Cowie and Patricia Gould, Reed Whipple Cultural Center, through June 12.

The process results in profoundly sculptural drawings, digging into the temporal and performative essence of the medium. In exploring this overlap, Sommerhauser sought to avoid a scenario where the "drawings become three-dimensional in space" by instead using "time and force to become sculptural." This connection to chance, performance and process is expansive.

In "Soft Drift," strokes float across the page like a musical score, a structural record of the actions of an invisible force. Vibrant crimson scars accumulate into stunning "Red Columns." "Halved Mound" is a technical mind warp, a mirrored diptych that anticipates and harnesses the vacuum's "wind."

Luckily for us, the drawings are also superbly lovely. Softly floating figures and romantic mountain landscapes emerge from the cacophony of marks, like gazing at clouds on a lazy day.

Sommerhauser delivers a physical record of events that seem impossible to pin down. In essence this work — and, according to the artist, much of his work — is an attempt at quieting something: nature, memory, the elements, and things out of our control. Brett Wesley Gallery offers an exhibition truly deserving of its beautiful facility. Unlikely Events contains very precarious, surreal moments that are honest and modest yet incredibly thrilling. Just don't forget to breathe.


Danielle Kelly

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