Smith House Galleries Exhibit Shows Off The Creative Process

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October 23, 2018
Daily News-Record  10/20/18
HARRISONBURG — The word mealymouthed means “not plain or straightforward: devious,” according to Merriam Webster. Dexterity is the ease and quickness in which a person completes a manual task.
John Ros and Robert Mertens, both artists and faculty at James Madison University, titled their latest exhibition at Smith House Galleries “Mealymouth Dexterity” to showcase the process of creating art with an installation that changes on a daily basis.
“In my mind, I’m thinking about the clumsiness of doing this kind of process,” said Mertens, an assistant professor and fiber arts coordinator in the JMU School of Art, Design and Art History. “The notion of fiddling around or tinkering isn’t really poetic or smooth; it’s thinking about this garbled variation of dexterity.”
The pair are treating the show like an artist residency that is open to the public, a rare opportunity to gain insight into an artist’s thought process.
“I feel like this is a residency where we can mess around so it doesn’t really matter where we begin and it doesn’t really matter where we end,” said Ros, director and curator of Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art at JMU. “This show is about the process.”
Jenny Burden, executive director of the Arts Council of the Valley, said it’s been an exciting experience watching the gallery space transform every day.
“We get to watch the process on a daily basis, and we are not exposed to that usually,” she said. “We [usually] see the finished product, but this has been so exciting for us here and for the public to come in and see what’s happening.”
Mertens’ sculpture is made of electrical conduit that he modifies daily. He started out with only a junction box and stretched the conduit across the room in a way that’s unique to the space.
“The conduit is growing throughout the space, first mirroring some of the architecture in the room and then sort of splitting the space apart,” Mertens said. “This work can’t exist the same anywhere else in the world. It has to be in this configuration. Whereas with traditional sculpture, you put it on a pedestal and you take it somewhere else in the world — it’s going to look exactly the same wherever it goes.”
The piece is part sculpture, part musical instrument. The middle section of the work is the equivalent of a two-string guitar, according to Mertens, who installed a pick up inside it. Inside the metal box contains a spring which gives an acoustic reverb.
He also installed what is called a crackle box, in which Mertens sticks his hands into the circuit board of a picked-apart battery-powered radio, which creates distortion and other feedback noises.
“It’s intentionally causing your circuit to overload; you’re jumping resistances,” he said . “You’re inserting yourself into the actual circuit board to create sounds.”
He also planted speakers in the room and plays a natural sound recording he taped outside Smith House Galleries. The viewer hears crickets, cars driving by and people talking in the distance.
In the adjacent room, every day Mertens moves quilt squares in Navajo Star patterns up the wall and across the ceiling, forming various shapes. Once he moves the squares, there are imprints on the wall tracing to where the squares were once placed.
Mertens has made more dramatic changes, while Ros’ are subtle. Mertens said it is more natural for him to modify his art daily than to finish it and be done with it.
“I think this is actually more realistic,” Mertens said. “It’s a challenge for artists to say ‘No, this is done. I’m going to leave it. I can’t touch it ever again.’ It’s more your instinct to want to always go back to it and change it.”
The history of the building that houses Smith House Galleries serves as inspiration for the artwork. In 2005, the Daily News-Record donated the building known as the “Smith House,” built circa 1867, to the Arts Council of the Valley to save it from being demolished. The community raised money to physically move the house to its location at 311 S. Main St.
“What was important about that was the community effort,” Ros said. “It took so many different people to actually move this thing and make it want to be something.”
Ros dug out boxes of documents from the Arts Council’s archive that are on display in the exhibit next to a typewriter. Ros types the numbers one through 366 on blank pages to represent the number of days in a leap year. For Ros, it’s a bit of a performance, but it’s the notion of daily activity and practice.
Upstairs, Ros measured the dimensions of the doors, which he noticed were all different sizes, and he scaled it down and drew a graphite outline out of the door on the wall next to it. In the room with Mertens’ sculpture are cardboard cutouts on the wall that relate to the fireplace.
The installation is void of any informational text that usually accompanies a piece of art. Ros hopes viewers take time to think about what they’re seeing and find their own meaning.
“I think my part as a citizen, as an art educator, as an artist, as a curator, my interest is in giving people the confidence to understand visual language,” he said.
“Mealymouth Dexterity” will be open to the public until Oct. 27. Ros and Mertens will be working in the installation today from noon to 2 p.m., with Mertens giving an artist talk at noon. Ros will be available to engage with visitors at the exhibit on Tuesday from 9 to 11 a.m.