EXHIBIT: "She Dances Timeless Void, Curious Wind," paintings by Shamms Mortier. CCV Hallway Galleries, LL Atrium, Burlington. Through May 5.
ARTWORK: "Gallery" by Shamms Mortier
Shamms Mortier's current exhibition at the Community College of Vermont in Burlington, cryptically titled "She Dances Timeless Void, Curious Wind," is as colorful as his aesthetic journey has been. A multifaceted artist, he's the author of 22 books on electronic media, so it makes sense that his surrealist visions were digitally produced. But his non-computer background probably contributes even more to this show.
Born on Chicago's South Side in 1940, Mortier found work as a commercial illustrator and a technical draftsman. However, he soon realized he was "obsessed with writing, visual art (painting and pen-and-ink at that time), and music," according to his artist statement, so he "severed" his "respectable employment opportunities" altogether.
Mortier, who had begun playing drums professionally by age 12, studied music with Roy Knapp -- the guy who taught jazz great Gene Krupa how to read music. He let his various occupations "trade places now and then," he writes, suggesting, "Everything feeds everything else in some mysterious way."
Mysteries abound in Mortier's 18 36-by-24-inch works at CCV. In "Machine Life," silver, metallic, robotic figures float in an earth-toned atmosphere. In "Isle of Hands," pairs of open hands behave like wings around strange clock dials. In the upper half of the composition, they fly around a small island that seems to be dominated by a dormant volcano. Other hands spring up like shrubs from the island's beach.
"Communion" is a bizarre close-up of bright-green leaves populated by a strange collection of insects and other creatures. A few red and lavender flowers tucked in among the leaves create a formally astute triadic harmony of hues. Mortier's hyperrealism and the rhythmic, interwoven leaves are dreamlike.
As a jazz man, Mortier credits a musical influence in his visual art: John Coltrane. From the saxophonist he "learned about discipline and passion," Mortier writes. "His approach is structured and free at the same time. I also connect with his 'wall of sound' theory as part of the way I create visuals, working in 'walls of color.'"
Mortier's "Gallery" literally contains walls of color --the painting portrays four other paintings, including restatements of some works in this show, presented in the perspective. Visitors in "Gallery" include a girl and an old man, as well as harder-to-describe characters: a purple figure who looks like a Big Boy restaurant mascot; a strangely proportioned fellow on a bench in the foreground; and a humorous yet mildly disturbing individual perching in the gallery's rafters.
Mortier's work has a "Where's Waldo" quality -- it's so packed with details that visual searching is necessary. But the effort is rewarded with Mortier's self-referential humor. In "Eternal Dance," five strange angels fly overhead, and among them appears another incarnation of the rafter guy in "Gallery." The figures in this work also have contradictory variations of scale and value that seem to warp the space. That is, large figures have the colors of what would usually be in more distant figures, and vice versa.
Mortier's paintings were printed onto canvas with archival inks in a process that seems nearly as mysterious as the pictures themselves. His palette includes fluorescent colors, which aren't easy on the eyes, and his backgrounds are arguably overly busy. Nevertheless, as contemporary surrealism goes, his compositions are structurally impeccable. And if Mortier's hues sometimes clash like polytonal dissonance, his rhythms keep every nuance tightly woven together.
With a doctorate in Transpersonal Studies from Union Institute, Mortier teaches mythology, psychology, philosophy, ethics and art at CCV as well as at Burlington and Johnson State colleges. A follower of Martin Buber's philosophy, he writes, "I remain aware of the ways in which the collective unconscious presents imagery and directions in both waking life and in dreams." His visual art has the power to make others aware, too.