Visual metaphor can be a tricky business as it requires more time for assimilation, an extra stride in the mind as it were, a leap of imagination that often goes well beyond the materiality of the work itself. I we were to compare it to a food, metaphor would probably be most like an onion in that as we move deeper in, it opens out into more curious possibilities, and even if we find ourselves weeping in the process of looking, at least we've learned something more about ourselves. In the past fifty years or so, artists have focused more on compositional elements than content and this has taken the form of abstract painting. This kind of painting is deceptively appealing because it allows viewers to inject themselves wholly into the work. Artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and today's Monique Prieto, Ingrid Calame and Chris Finley approach form as energized space and are most interested in how paint exists in time in space than they are in any meanings inherent in the shapes and lines they create. That's not to say that abstraction is in any way "easy." Not at all, but it affords a greater comfort zone for some viewers. Metaphor is seeing a comeback today because more and more, people are finding it difficult to navigate in the world today; metaphor in art serves as a signpost, a moment of recognition where we find solace in what feels familiar. Finally, metaphor presupposes a deeper more comprehensive understanding of the world, and this complexity at its best and most seductive, should not be seen as alien or foreign to us, but should serve to broaden our life perspective. All in all, metaphor is a good thing despite it's sometime complexity.
Metaphor derives from the Greek word "metaphora," meaning "transference" and has generally been understood as a figurative expression, which interprets a thing or action through an implied comparison with something else. As Aristotle observes in his famous Poetics, metaphors often depend on logical relationships between multiple terms, i.e. a broader range of vision. The metaphor ‘old age is the evening of life,' for instance, relies on the relation between a set of terms describing day and another set describing age. A visual artist might possibly render this verbal metaphor as an old man standing naked in front of a waning moon with vines growing in and out of his body, suggesting that he will soon return to nature as will we all. As with language, metaphor functions in visual terms as a tool used to deepen or expand the meaning of a work of art, and while metaphor has for a time been deliberately eliminated from the art maker's lexicon due to persistent cultural trends, it is now in this difficult global economy, experiencing a rebirth. Artists who employ metaphor are usually engaged in a direct personal dialogue between themselves and the viewer and this can sometimes be seen as unnerving, yet it is through these necessary pronouncements, visual or otherwise, that enables each of us to develop our own independent language. After all, most of us learn from example. These three artists account for grief, (not in the boo hoo sense of the word, but in the more fundamental human sense wherein you can't have bliss without heartache) both in their own lives and as reflected in the world around them, and metaphor represents the essential skeletal structure that informs everything they do.
Mark Dutcher uses shape and form as metaphoric associations that are at once brutal and very delicate. Working with fundamental shapes like triangles, circles and rectangles many of which appear stacked like bricks, albeit vibrantly colored, Dutcher calibrates ideas of loss and grief using the shapes as representations of personal trauma extending outwards, as all great art does, toward a greater universality. We are included in this work at every turn, even as the paint bleeds down the canvas, or the sculptures seem to turn in on themselves, sometimes appearing half broken and weighted down, yet there is no room here for pity, only the sheer wonderment at being alive. Dutcher's color palette of bright pinks and deeply saturated fluorescents seems at odds with the more serious impulse behind the work, yet even as the pink and yellow bricks are stacked across the top of a canvas like strange anthropological excavations, the viewer is reminded that we are all in this together, and that perhaps had Dorothy lifted one of those glorious bricks from the fabled yellow brick road, she might never have lost her way again.
Similarly, the work of Tanya Batura, an LA based sculptor who works in ceramics, utilizes metaphor as a means of drawing the viewer deeper into a world where the human gaze is fractured and then reconstituted. Metaphor operates here as veiled allusion, or the vaguest implication of violence, yet within that violence is some strange transcendence, like walking the gritty streets of New York late at night and somehow finding your life's purpose in the unlikeliest corner. Batura's large ceramic heads, some open-mouthed, others with eyes closed, bring to mind the effigies of the dead. Metaphor determines the subtle implied content of Batura's work wherein the same open mouth becomes a darkened tunnel into the unknown, and a pair of blue eyes stares back at us like a nascent pool of water on a hot spring day. Batura's visual evocations are simultaneously graceful and sinister, and it is this explicit duality that makes her work so compelling.
Similiarly, Tom Knechtel's work derives from a fairy book kind of romanticism gone bizarrely awry, a mixture of ancient Roman iconography, yantras (Sanskrit word for "instrument" or "machine". The meaning is contextual. Much like the word 'instrument' itself, it can stand for symbols, processes, automata, machinery or anything that has structure and organization), and wizened old animal sages, half man, half beast. With the delicacy of a botanist and the theatricality of a vaudeville performer, Knechtel, whose technical abilities are staggering, formulates metaphorical worlds of alternate realities that appear to have been created not so much for the viewer's enjoyment but as a strangely stylized "world of repose" where Knechtel might finally one day lose himself.
Finally, metaphor is a tool, another means by which we might measure ourselves, not competitively against one another, but honestly in accordance with ourselves. When we look at a piece of art, we don't only find the artist there and his/her own personal associations and biases, but, if the artist has done his job, we get a glimpse of ourselves alive and vital in the world. At the end of any long day, we all create worlds within worlds, if only stepping away for an hour or so into the bath, listening to a favorite song, walking the neighbor's dog, or standing in the kitchen chopping an onion for the evening's requisite meal. The world around us falls away for an instant, and we are better for it.