Two Fine Exhibits at Raleigh's Block Gallery Are Also Case Studies in How Deeply Environment Changes the Experience of Viewing Art | Arts

Two Fine Exhibits at Raleigh's Block Gallery Are Also Case Studies in How Deeply Environment Changes the Experience of Viewing Art

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"Things Get Thorny" by Ashlynn Browning - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BLOCK GALLERY
  • photo courtesy of The Block Gallery
  • "Things Get Thorny" by Ashlynn Browning
Precarious Edifices
Through Friday, July 21
The Block Gallery, Raleigh

Plausible Worlds
Through Friday, July 21
The Block2 Gallery, Raleigh


Ginger Wagg and Jaclyn Bowie: Granite in Reverse
Friday, July 14, 9 p.m., free
The Block2 Gallery, Raleigh

The Block Gallery, which is curated by Stacy Bloom Rexrode through the Office of Raleigh Arts, is currently running two exhibits. In the main Block Gallery, a two-floor space in the Raleigh Municipal Building, is Precarious Edifices, an exhibit of abstract art by local artists Ashlynn Browning and Chieko Murasugi. Nearby in Market Plaza, the outdoor gallery Block2—which features a screen that is itself a work of art, a sculpture called “Sway” by Matt McConnell—is displaying Plausible Worlds, a two-artist abstract video exhibit featuring Shen Wei and Jaclyn Bowie.

Viewing abstract art in these spaces is a very meditative experience; you have to be present in the moment to get the full effect. In Precarious Edifices, Browning’s use of bold, angular strokes and bright colors should be overwhelming, but the artist’s apparently methodical approach creates an aura of tranquility. Although Browning’s style of abstraction is distinct from Murasugi’s, the juxtaposition of the artists’ work creates an interesting rhythm of colors and lines throughout the gallery.

Block2 - PHOTO BY ADITI DHOLAKIA
  • photo by Aditi Dholakia
  • Block2
Meanwhile, Shen Wei and Jaclyn Bowie’s works at Block2 play with the concept of change over time. Watching the videos is a kind of out-of-body experience; they compel the viewer to remain conscious while still somehow ignoring the passage of time. Wei’s "Dusk of the Harmonious Garden," more than fifteen minutes long, feels as though it passes by in seconds. Conversely, Bowie’s "Geij" feels as though it lasts forever, despite being just under three minutes long.

The works in Precarious Edifices, according to the curator’s statement, are intended to “invite the viewer to stop and contemplate the placement of each mark.” Meanwhile, Plausible Worlds attempts to create “imagined spaces” that “welcome a pause from reality.” There is no contesting that the artworks displayed in the spaces are, in and of themselves, moving. But these statements led me to think about the crucial role environment plays in the subjective experience of viewing art. While the works in these two exhibits are uniformly satisfying, the spaces they inhabit don’t uniformly complement the experience.

Precarious Edifices, though ostensibly displayed in one gallery, feels vastly different on the first and second floors. The first floor of the Raleigh Municipal Building is a bustling, noisy office space. Two sets of doors block most of the natural light, resulting in a rather dim, artificially lit space. In the background, the sounds of clicking pens, clacking keyboards, arriving elevators, and general chatter among employees is a constant distraction.

The Block Gallery's second floor - PHOTO BY ADITI DHOLAKIA
  • photo by Aditi Dholakia
  • The Block Gallery's second floor
The art hangs on two perpendicular marble walls, highlighted by small spotlights that adequately brighten the works but also wash out the colors. In the middle of the space is an imposing spiral staircase that leads to the second floor. While the staircase is aesthetically interesting, its presence interrupts the flow of the space and blocks the art behind it. The cacophonous environment and the peaceful aura of the art combine into a dissonant, even taxing, experience.

Walking up to the second floor, it feels like an entirely different atmosphere. The office sounds, while still audible, are muted by one floor of distance. Floor-to-ceiling windows on one side of the space let in ample natural light, which balances the spotlights well. The space feels more open and fluid. You almost feel like you’re in a dedicated art gallery instead of an office lobby.

These particular artworks might not thrive in a bustling environment, but the same cannot be said of the works in the Block2 show, a better pairing of content and context. Though Block2 is situated off the main street, there’s still plenty of foot traffic and hubbub from nearby restaurants and bars. Nevertheless, Plausible Worlds is a less dissonant experience than Precarious Edifices.

The meditative nature of both videos makes it easy to tune out the background noise; moreover, both incorporate subtle sounds that help the videos blend with the world around them. Block2 offers a place to escape the constant movement and noise and re-center oneself in the present by focusing on the art. Tonight would be a great time to visit, when Ginger Wagg joins Bowie for a performance around her video called Granite in Reverse.

"Warming Hut" by Chieko Murasugi - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BLOCK GALLERY
  • photo courtesy of The Block Gallery
  • "Warming Hut" by Chieko Murasugi
Block Gallery was founded in 1984, when Raleigh had little art scene to speak of. That has changed drastically in the decades since, and last year, the City of Raleigh implemented the Raleigh Arts Plan, which allocates thousands of dollars in funding to artistic endeavors. Why, then, has the city’s official gallery languished in an office lobby? (Employees working in the Raleigh Municipal Building seemed surprised to see me there just to look at the art.)

The opening of Block2 last year was a great step toward modernizing Raleigh's municipal gallery, and if the city values art as much as it says it does, then perhaps it’s also time to reconsider the placement and utility of its flagship so that the excellent artists it displays can be seen as they should be.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this post originally misidentified the artist Shen Wei for the choreographer of the same name.

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