Pretty Is a Blind Man’s Playground

Beware the pretty; it is a spinning maelstrom, a black hole that will suck you in and leave you in the dark. Pretty things distract viewers from the reality that lies beneath what they see. Maybe when things get too pretty, a barrier between the art and the viewer forms that says, “I am here and you are there … do not touch.”

The new exhibit, Alchemical Reactions, at The Wheeler School’s Chazen Gallery, has no shortage of pretty things, but counters that with the use of light and reflection; a way to bring viewers close. The show highlights two artists whose works play with light and reflection. Susan Freda and Allison Paschke have set up their camps on the close-cutting walls of the gallery, mirroring light off of one another’s work.

Susan Freda’s work is light, bright and airy. With a jeweler’s precision, she weaves intricate webbings of wire that hold bits of glass, beads, silver and gold leaf. Gowns and tapestries are made by the artist’s needle nose pliers rather than grandma’s crochet needles, and play with the light and heavy, strong and fragile. The other crucial elements, not found in the jeweler’s toolbox, is the duality of light and shadow, and how it plays lyrically throughout the ethereal forms. With the help of overhanging studio lights, the pieces are given another dimension of form and body.


Susan Freda Vitro OrbisVitro Orbis (Glass Circle), tin-coated copper, wire, gold and silver leaf and metal powders, is a glass dreamcatcher that captures the light above and creates a ghostly shadow of rings and baubles, feathering outward underneath the menagerie of metallic and glass nuggets. Striking and poetic, Vitro Orbis is as playful and stoic as Jellylorum, George Pushdragon, Pettipaws and Rum Tum Tugger, or any other of T.S. Eliot’s fanciful Jellicles.

Susan Freda Arura Glacialis (Frozen Field)Parting from the gowns and tapestries that are comforting in their familiarity is a piece called Arura Glacialis (Frozen Field). Setting itself apart from the rest of the work with qualities of impressionistic water lilies, Frozen Field lives up to its title, freezing the viewer’s reflection, trapping it underneath the surface of porcelain shells and glass clusters. It gives the impression of reflection, the viewer’s image receding, never to come back clear and vibrant.

Allison Paschke 2In the other camp in this exhibition is minimalist Allison Paschke, whose work operates on color, form and themes found in nature. Her work echoes nature with its ordered chaos, holding to a tightly constructed balance, everything uniform from afar, but on closer inspection, very different. Gridlocked on most of the work are little geometric cabinets of curiosities, little porcelain articles over highly polished squares of blue, yellow-gold and grey. They read like Aztec temples, white hieroglyphics, or a utopian city turned dystopian and back again and left flooded on a reflective surface. Elements of nature do not go unnoticed. On bigger compositions the geometric shapes are turned into precisely pinned fungus forms called ips that huddle together like stars and spread out like wildflowers.

Allison Paschke First GlipsAllison’s piece, First Glips, a 24×24 mirror surface, silvery blue, with radiating squares made of glass circles, is the most hypnotic of the works and takes complete advantage of the light, jutting it inward and outward, locking the viewer in its spell.

Going into this show, if the eye rests only on the surface — on the pieces’ prettiness — if you become distracted by the “oohs” and “aahs,” then you have missed the show entirely. Do not be made comfortable by the bells and whistles, look closely and challenge what you are seeing. The pretty and precious are for the walls of the home. It is the fly to the flame. The reward of this show is how the pieces exhibit the use of light and reflection, how light adds and reflection draws. The most important materials in both artists’ toolboxes are not glass, gold leaf, porcelain, resins, or wire; they are light and reflection. 

Alchemical Reactions at The Wheeler School’s Chazen Gallery is featuring the works of Susan Freda and Allison Paschke, and will be on display through March 6.