Review of "Stillness and Grey" in the Shepherd Express

Review of "Stillness and Grey" in the Shepherd Express
Scott Espeseth's Bridge From the Real to the Surreal


NOV. 06, 2019

When art was confronted with the documentary possibilities of photography in middle of the 19th century, it was a moment of existential reckoning. No longer society’s go-to for objective transcription of the visible world, traditional art was forced to go inward, seeking new, subjective, interior worlds that the camera couldn’t access. Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstraction resulted and have thrived for so long now that we often overlook the possibilities of art to capture the finer details of the observable Universe; that is, outside of foundations classes in art schools.

Scott Espeseth’s finely rendered works on paper—currently on view in the Marian Gallery at Mount Mary University (through Nov. 22)—function as a bridge between the detailed mundanity of the existent material world and the surreal strangeness of those invented. His attempt to reconcile these two dimensions is far weirder than one simply reveling in a dreamy, interior fantasy. The exhibition’s title, “Stillness and Grey,” reflects the banality of the show’s subject matter: An air hockey table, a plate of dish sponges, a coverless light switch, a bathroom vanity... all executed in either black and white or monochromatic red or blue. They are unspectacular things uninflected with formal flourish: no dramatic diagonals, forced perspectives, raking theatrical light or other high Baroque-style visual crescendos.
A virtuously painted black and white watercolor called Contractor Bag features the titular object resting statically and slightly monumental. It’s seen from a lower vantage than one would normally view such a meaningless object, but with its glistening, taught, opaque skin and portrait-like framing, the bag takes on an unexpected anthropomorphic fullness that makes it more than simply an observational drawing. Without seeing such a painting, it’s fair to wonder whether this is simply creative inference. As the oddities mount, however, it becomes clear that Espeseth is slowly crafting a larger picture shaped by both interior and exterior energies.

Adjacent to the contractor bag is an unassuming ballpoint pen drawing of a door in a hallway leading into a darkened room. By itself, it is an unremarkable domestic interior, but with the residue of other sad household items still on our retinas, it becomes purposeful, animated and eerie. The menacing eeriness continues to mount as we recognize the glaring absence of human beings, even while their stuff is everywhere. This makes the setting feel real and imagined, abandoned and inhabited, at the same time. In all their slow, still, prosaic drama, they leave us with a Lynchian cinematic quality that lingers and lingers like ants on fingers.
Another painting of a plastic bag, this one clear and stuffed with shredded paper, is a comic foil to the square-shouldered, blue-collar counterpart. Where the contractor bag towered, this one is seen from a higher vantage, cropped just above its head, squatty, and an altogether more sensitive creature. You can’t avoid making a symbolic connection between his shredded insides and transparent skin. There are no proper humans around, but this guy is a more-than-serviceable human stand-in. The show, however, is not completely absent of humans. One untitled painting shows a child ducking behind shrubbery, averting his face. It functions as a kind of tell in “Stillness and Grey.” It lets us know for certain, if we weren’t there already, that the absence in this work means the presence of something else.
By dialing down the sensationalism and superficial drama, Espeseth sets a subdued tone for his representational rendering to thrive. It’s not often we get this deep a dive into the interior of an artist’s head through so much common exterior subject matter, and it’s satisfying to see Espeseth pull it off effectively.

Review of "Signal Bleed" in Isthmus

Bizarre visions: Contrasting exhibits present alternative realities

by John Mclaughlin

AUGUST 3, 2017

While the worlds of research science and fine art don’t typically collide, Doug Bosley isn’t a typical artist.

Bosley received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin in 2012, and, from 2013-15, served as honorary fellow and artist-in-residence in the Forest Lab at UW’s Department of Bacteriology. His new show at the James Watrous Gallery in the Overture Center, Unexplored Map, makes masterful use of the antiquated Mezzotint style of printmaking and reflects the artist’s experience in the lab by conjuring an alternate world filled with Auxons — a population of small, self-replicating insectile robots that, initially programmed by humans, has autonomously spread into separate ecological niches.

The show, which is on display alongside artist Scott Espeseth’s Signal Bleed and runs through August 27, acts as a cross-sectional safari through an alien realm, in landscapes decimated by climate change. Bosley’s pieces range from large-scale colonies to single profile sketches. “LD:4334.1409” depicts “Collectors,” a sub-type of Auxon evolved to transport materials between sites. Each piece is intricately detailed and dramatically lit, dominated by black-and-white or indigo tones.

Bosley’s prints carry implicit but assertive political undertones — they question our ideas of technological progress and the future of the Earth’s species. The artist, however, works diligently to keep the show from getting too bogged down in these questions.

“One question I’ve been asking myself is: ‘How can I make work that is socially relevant but not overly didactic at the same time?’” Bosley said at the opening reception on July 14.

At times, Unexplored Map feels more like an otherworldly natural history museum exhibit than an art show. Bosley, having worked with Auxon for years, has created a comprehensive and meticulously detailed amount of narrative background for the species. Much of this information is displayed on laminated sheets throughout the gallery, offering viewers context for the images.

And this, more than anything, is the joy of Bosley’s work; each piece builds off the one preceding it. Stepping into Unexplored Map is stepping into another world entirely, one that is curious and eerie but also ethically aware.

Standing in contrast to Bosley’s work is Signal Bleed, the stark, and deceptively deep drawings of UW MFA grad and current Beloit College instructor Scott Espeseth.

The chromatically muted pieces are small (“Picture Window” is 11” x 12”), and depict a series of quotidian scenes: “Potluck” (watercolor on paper, 2016) depicts a covered casserole dish on the floor of an unfurnished room; “Night Windows,” in a wash of red ink, shows two blank windows in the corner of an empty apartment.

This austerity forces every element, each object, to take on greater significance; and from this we begin to notice how things are very slightly — but fundamentally — off-axis in the world of Espeseth’s work.

The dish in “Potluck,” for example, is not only sitting on a hardwood floor, but projects an intense, dramatic shadow; “Bathroom,” a black-and-white ink scene of a commonplace restroom wall, contains a small, unexplained black circle with flickering white dots.

These strange, understated aberrations exude a quiet foreboding, an atmosphere of faint but creeping dread. The energy of each drawing is dormant but brimming with kinetic energy, coiled liked a snake.

“I think of [the work as] spaces where there’s some kind of crack opening between two different worlds. In a lot of my other work this would have been a little more obvious, but for this exhibition I brought together drawings where it’s a little bit more subtle,” says the artist.

And although easy to overlook, the dynamic in Signal Bleed is a delicately wrought balance between absence and presence. The simplicity of the images — and the important questions left unanswered — allows each unhinged element to resonate.