WHAT: "Let the Work Begin: Theatrum Chemicum," an installation by Gary Nickard and Reinhard Reitzenstein
WHEN: Through Dec. 7
WHERE: University at Buffalo Art Gallery, North Campus, Amherst
OK, boys and girls, take out your primer on Ursel Zetzner and grab your distillation vessel. We're going to do a little alchemy.
Ursel Zetzner was the author of a multivolume book on alchemy begun in 1602. Called "Theatrum Chemicum," the book was a massive investigation into what then was considered science - which in Zetzner's time was a veritable medieval collage of Jewish mysticism, astrology and the magical arts, all united by extensive physical experiments with metals and other chemicals.
Gary Nickard and Reinhard Reitzenstein, two area artists and University at Buffalo art faculty members, have taken Zetzner's catchy title and appropriated it for a very elaborate but ultimately beguiling installation in the UB Art Gallery. The complete title, "Let the Work Begin: Theatrum Chemicum," suggests that a formidable exercise may be in store for even the more studious among us. It is, and it isn't.
Before you tumble into the bottomless pit of alchemical symbolism, be advised that you can approach this mass of assembled objects, images and sculpture from many angles. It's true that the exhibition has its didactic side: Blackboards "explain" alchemical "stages," and objects and assemblages tease with suggestions of arcane alchemical activities.
Indeed, the place is awash with pseudoscientific excess. And because there's not a whiff of irony in any of it, I must assume that these two artists are seriously invested in this ancient science/philosophy.
Alchemy is a good fit for the two artists. Nickard, in his past work, has long pursued a project that intends to dismantle the objectivity of modern science. The Canadian-born Reitzenstein is clearly an artist who sees an intense re-engagement with nature as the major hope for righting a misguided humanity.
With its arcane symbols, Latin words, obscure processes and weird correspondences of things natural and spiritual, the show holds more than a beaker's full of puzzlement. But beyond the conundrums, there's a fantastic visual experience available even for the alchemically challenged.
Helpfully, it turns out, the installation blurs the fact that the two artists employ divergent artistic means. Other than their interest in alchemy, they may in fact have little in common as artists. But together they make a great team.
Nickard's contributions to the show come as temporary assemblages - the common "installation" tactic of loading up with a multitude of objects - and as appropriated images. Throughout, he attacks the subject obliquely, avoiding the employment of anything that would suggest a traditional, closed-off art work.
Reitzenstein makes carefully constructed objects. Each of his pieces are pieces - that is, they are finished in terms of craft and have their own internal rules of engagement. Even in his "aroma" pieces - enchanting works like "Flower Cannon" and "Natura/Cultura," where he might have been much less formally rigorous - he insists on care with surface, scale and form. Reitzenstein's work is beautifully, if sometimes overfastidiously, worked out. One very long drawing - a kind of oversized stem that sprouts "tears" - is particularly lovingly rendered. "Galaxy" and "Comet" are part of the craft tradition that puts pottery on sticks to increase its sculptural presence. While Reitzenstein is adjusting and polishing his objects, Nickard is playing the collector. His table displays are wild accumulations of objects and materials - flasks, stopped bottles filled with colored liquids, glass tubes, tiny balancing scales and big chemical thermometers. With this fantasy land of glass apparatus are bits of quartz, crystals, the occasional stone, and collections of such things as twigs, pine cones and nuts.
Old scientific electronic equipment sit gloomily behind this sparkling, textured display, recalling our own earlier science now fully outmoded by the computer.
When he isn't accumulating, he is re-presenting borrowed material. The Duratrans (illuminated panels, like in airports) use old engravings featuring stupefied people and animals acting out some kind of furious alchemical drama. By themselves they would be merely charming; electrified, they are puns on the alchemical meanings of light as realized through an ubiquitous product of technological society. Old and new science are made to clash.
One of the most quietly dramatic pieces is a collaboration in the two-story Lightwell Gallery. In this silo-like space, an entire uprooted tree is suspended upside down, at a slight angle off the vertical. Like a giant writing instrument, its tip just touches concentric circles of dried rose petals and pine cones on the floor. Except the slightly "alarmed" roots, this is a serenely poised object - despite the fact that seven of those gigantic chemical thermometers pierce the tree's middle.
A singular, independent work like this makes me wonder if anyone needs that alchemy lesson. Any visitor with a well-tuned sense of metaphor should sail through this show, gathering poetic and visual impressions without worrying too much about Ursel Zetzner and his obscure science.