Michael Janis Echoes, 2015 Kilnformed glass, glass powder imagery is part of Virginia MOCA’s “Mindful: Exploring Mental Health through art” exhibit

By Betsy DiJulio

The word “mindful” has become part of today’s lexicon verging on a trendy buzz word.  I first encountered it on my yoga mat, but it has eased out of yoga studios and begun to flow through society at large.

At Virginia Beach’s MOCA, Mindful is the title of a new exhibition (shown concurrently with New Waves and the must-see video installation Nevet Yitzhak: Warcraft).  At the museum, the term serves as a poetic rubric for a group show in which contemporary artists explore complex, and often subterranean, aspects of mental illness.

Organized by the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, this is no “craft show” with its potentially pejorative connotations.  Rather, it reads as an elegant mixed-media contemporary art exhibition in keeping with what we have come to expect from MOCA: engaging works of art, somewhat sparely installed, with plenty of room to “breathe”—or take a deep breath—in between each piece.

After attending the press preview and public opening, I kept thinking that a review didn’t seem like quite the right fit, nor did a Q & A.  After a lot of introspection and a little research—this show lends itself to a turning inward—I decided to consider the work through the lens of the intertwined and overlapping Five Dimensions of Wellness because, taken as a whole, the experience seems as much about healing as declining.

Though there are 13 artists in the exhibition, I chose to highlight five whose work seems to correspond especially well with the Five Dimensions (though some sources list as many as 10 or more dimensions): Physical, Emotional, Social, Spiritual, and Intellectual.

Physical.  In the center of one gallery, Ian Thomas has set a dining table for seven with unglazed chalky white porcelain plates and chargers delicately rimmed in fine charcoal gray lines.  The absentee diners are being served a collection of pills—custom “cocktails”—each exquisitely drawn with gray underglazes that lend the look of fine graphite drawings.  The installation is a haunting reminder of the growing “daily diet” of prescribed pharmaceuticals used to treat various mental illnesses.

Emotional.  Alison Saar is a venerable figure in the world of contemporary art and, though her means are poetic, a proponent for more open dialogue about mental illness within the African-American community.  In “J’Attends” (I Wait), we peer through the hollow eye slits of a sculpted female head lying on her side.  Inside the shell of her head, a single glowing light bulb is surrounded by moths that flutter in the space and alight on the bare walls.  The artist seems to offer us a view into the restless, disquieted mind of an otherwise placid woman—her outer coffee-toned sheath held in place by tiny nails—that awaits the decent into madness.

Social. Both Swoon, a classically-trained street artist who investigates and artistically mediates the relationship between people and their built environment in an effort to revitalize urban communities, and Meredith Grimsley, a mixed-media fiber artist, offer large, intricate pieces expressing ideas about mental illness in families.  In “Memento Mori,” a handprinted block print with coffee stain and intricate cut out on mylar, Grimsley expresses the joyful pain and painful joy of life with parents whose lives were claimed by their addictions.  Graphic and energetic with both black-and-white and warm-toned depictions of mother, child, fetus, skeletons, and decorative motifs combine to exude a kind of Day of the Dead vibe.

In “Foundress” (the term for a single yellow jacket queen), with its attenuated format, mesmerizing machine quilting and hand embroidery, and rich organic color palette, Grimsley investigates the legacy of family dysfunction as a product of both genetics and patterns of behavior.

Spiritual.   Rendered in charcoal, fiber optics, LEDs, and digital prints on paper, Lyn Godley’s “In Flight” is a grid of 36 square images depicting birds that swoop and soar.  Cropped in ways that emphasize the dynamism of the birds and that visually link the various species, the overall effect is one of equipoise between stillness and movement, between isolation and connection. But it’s the light—tiny blue-white pinpoints that contour edges of the birds—that adds an especially spiritual dimension to the piece.  The artist thinks of light as “an aura that connects us to something beyond, something that gives us hope.”

Intellectual.  Joan Iversen Goswell’s two handsome mixed-media artist’s books illustrate excerpts from Allie Brosh’s post, “Depression Part Two” on her online blog, Hyperbole and a Half.  In her words the artist found “the truest description of depression that I have ever heard…”  Handsome and tailored on the exterior and more tactile and pictorial on the interior, the books seem to exist as metaphors for the internal vs. external battle that persists in the mind of a depressed person.


“Mindful: Exploring Mental Health Through Art”

Through April 16

Virginia MOCA, 2200 Parks Avenue, VA Beach, VA 

757.425.0000, www.virginiamoca.org