In The Shape of a Pocket, the Mills College Art Museum brings together an exhibition of two artists whose work is by turns intangible and substantial. Fittingly, the process of wandering through the MCAM installation is akin to the private action of feeling out the edges of an unknown space. The same is true for the sensation of experiencing both Anne Colvin and Margaret Tait's work. Using found and original footage, experimental techniques and minimal narrative, Colvin and Tait create insular and all-encompassing worlds without bound. Inside these "pockets" are even more discoveries -- two remarkable artists, one working in the legacy of the other, and a multitude of beauty to be absorbed within the exhibition, given the patience and time to truly do so.
In the meditative darkness of the gallery, Colvin's three-channel video installation A Granite Note is a large physical presence (projected on three 10 by 16-foot walls), but the imagery it depicts is fragmented, out of focus, or too close to absorb, remaining obscure and unknown despite its immense parts. While Tait's Portrait of Ga and Colour Poems are given a smaller stage in a screening room, they are not afterthoughts to Colvin's installation. Brief, atmospheric, and sometimes funny, Tait's films require an enclosed, semi-private (and seated) viewing experience.
Scale is in constant flux in both Colvin and Tait's works. While one portion of A Granite Note is visible upon opening the gallery door, the other two projections are angled towards the two closest walls, preventing viewers from ever observing the entire frame -- you simply can't get far enough away. The video facing the entrance shows marching bagpipers' feet, their kilts swishing in slow motion and regular speed while a pleasant shimmering sound loops overhead.
On Colvin's right wall, grainy high contrast flowers, their petals nearly 8 feet tall, move side to side, shifting in hue from lavender to peach to yellow. On the left wall, large boats move across the frame, cutting to choppy water and back again. The slight sound of crashing wave, possibly imagined, blends with a series of pleasant tones and the bagpipers' shimmer.
Behind the walls, red spotlights beam down on four paper sculptures. For these, Colvin sourced turn-of-the-century Scottish landscapes, printed them large-scale (halftone dots create a different type of rocky texture), then folded and shaped the paper to resemble rocks onces again.
Tait's films are filled with similar shifts between breathtaking Orkney coastlines and intimate, nearly abstracted moments. In Portrait of Ga, a playful document of her own mother, Tait opens with Ga's diminutive figure traversing an empty field, later lingering on a zoomed-in view of the older woman's white hands as she unwraps a sticky piece of candy against her dark dress.
After watching Colour Poems, some of Tait's recurring images begin to connect to Colvin's choices in A Granite Note: marching or orderly walking, swaying red poppies, rocks, ocean, things that seem inherently Scottish. Though Tait's films aren't filled with kilt-wearing actors, the remote Orkney islands (go ahead, check the map) are a character of their own, further demonstrated by the lovely documentary on view within the exhibition, Margaret Tait, Film Poet.
If anything could dwarf Colvin's 10-foot walls, it would be the collected accomplishments of Margaret Tait. Responsible for 33 films, 3 books of poetry and the "most challenging restoration" the Scottish Screen Archive ever attempted, Tait was both pioneering and prolific. In the words of her family, friends and peers, she becomes a legend. As one interviewee remarks, "She didn't say a lot, but when she did, it was very meaningful."
Opposite Tait's dark screening chamber, a bright room displays the documentary, audio of Tait reading her own poetry, copies of her various publications, and a small file organizer holding manila folders of her notes, letters, and other ephemera. While its brightness is jarring, small discoveries can be made within this room -- I opened origins and elements to find my new favorite lines of poetry in the piece called "Journalism:"
One should live to the limits of one's own greatness,
Neither beyond nor short,
And not contract to the smaller duties
The title The Shape of a Pocket is borrowed from a 2001 collection of essays by John Berger. Within Berger's original context, "a pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement." Berger's pocket is one of resistance against the New World Economic Order -- an explicit statement quite different from the fuzzy, intimate image (or feeling) conjured by the Mills College show. And yet, in the meditative space created within this exhibition, Tait's periodic references to violence and Colvin's depiction of fleeting moments address Berger's call for a shared sense of urgency. Sheltering from the chaos, Tait and Colvin's work creates a pocket where contemplation -- and remarkable artistic accomplishment -- becomes possible.
The Shape of a Pocket: Anne Colvin and Margaret Tait is on view through March 16, 2014 at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland. For more information visit mcam.mills.edu.