Boats have always captured the human imagination, and their associations run deep. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Charon the boatman ferries departed souls across the Acheron River into Tartarus, the Roman underworld. The central nave of the Christian cathedral owes its name to the Latin word navis, meaning ship. Boats were an integral part in Anglo-Saxon and Viking burials; the opening staves of Beowulf recount the elaborate ship-burial of Scyld Scefing, legendary king of the Danes. Multimedia artist David Greenwood’s exhibition Stop Motion, on view through May 17 at Michigan’s Grand Rapids Art Museum, is a witty and playful presentation of the boat and its many connotations.
Having grown up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Greenwood has been around boats for much of his life, and his art is largely about the tactile physicality of the boat itself. He observes that we grant them human qualities; we generally call them “she.” Indeed, walk through any marina: every boat has a name painted on its stern.
But Greenwood’s sculptures also address universal human emotions and experience. He uses the boat as a metaphor, and his work often eludes clear-cut interpretation. Rather, like an abstract painting by Mark Rothko, his sculptures unobtrusively guide the viewer toward a specific frame of mind, but then let the viewer approach the work on his or her own terms.
Greenwood infuses his sculptures with subtle humor and irony (starting with the show’s title), which sometimes belies the poignant subject matter his work addresses. Do You Still Love Me presents viewers with a canoe balancing improbably on a small stick, and containing a skeleton lying in repose upon a bed of dried and withered leaves. A kneeling pad in front of the canoe makes the sculpture seem like a sort of shrine. Replete with all the trappings of a traditional vanitas, the decayed body and withered leaves imply the inescapable passage of time. Likely the most straightforward sculpture in the show, Do You Still Love Me touches on the universally human desire to be remembered once we’ve made our crossing over.
His other sculptures are more allusive. Waiting for Redemption depicts a figure desperately clinging to his broken boat, his eyes and head turned heavenward. Are we observing a desperate man in his final moments, or do we see him just before miraculous deliverance?
The GRAM describes Greenwood’s art as realist, and it certainly is, but sculptures like Sudden Demise (Why is Timing Everything?) seem like something straight from the mind of Salvador Dali. And like surrealism, these sculptures are vehicles to tease out associations from our subconscious, which is why each viewer will inevitably walk away from the show having experienced something slightly different. Depending on our own personal journeys, the boat could either be the vessel that leaves us drifting aimlessly, or as for Homer’s Odysseus, the vessel that finally brings us home to Ithaca.
Additional information and images can be found on the GRAM’s website: http://www.artmuseumgr.org/art/current-exhibitions/
David Greenwood’s exhibition at GRAM has been extended through June 28, 2015.