"Lhasa," for example, appears like two ancient ivory towers punctuated with lookout windows and united by torn-edged flaps of clay that could be prayer flags. Behind the sculpture are blue rectangles, like patches of sky visible during the climb upward. Although fragile at the top and stained as if by time and the elements, "Lhasa" is solid at the base -- a testimony that says: I've endured and am still here.
The concept of time reappears in "Migration," which resembles a seedpod out of which germinates two Jack-and-the-Beanstalk forms, angling and thinning at the top. Mottled gray and black birds pool at the base while above them, another bird perches on the bottommost "rung" of this rattan and earth-toned form. Poised thus, the feeling is both of flight and rest, of the motion that could carry upward but has not. This is a moment in time when anything is possible.
A similar feeling of anticipation exists in "Plenty." With its narrow-footed pot sitting empty at its base, this ladder is an amalgam of indentations, inscriptions and twisting surface texture. Curiously, it sits atop a red-brick form. All the surfaces suggest having endured fire; they're scarred lightly in rich black and brown tones. Unlike "Lhasa," it has only one blue window, shifted to the top right of the ladder, which balances the empty vessel, visually at least. Otherwise, there is a tension created in the promise of "Plenty" against spaces -- inside the coil-pot, the rungs of the ladder, the patch of "sky" -- that could be seen as both empty and devoid or merely awaiting the arrival of someone or something else.
"Preguntas," meaning enquiries, takes the metaphor further: when one asks a question, one waits for a response. In this solidly formed piece, Nenno has restricted the "window" effect between the posts of the ladder and replaced the skin-like texture of the surface with thick layers of glaze, onto which she has inscribed still more layers of haphazardly flowing script. As she explains in the exhibit brochure, Nenno's questions are to her dead father, similar to two other pieces that contain such "earthbound letters." Again, although somber, there is the sense of hopefulness, not unlike a prayer flag flapping in the breeze. Whether the enquiries are uttered graveside or written like a letter, the act of honoring the departed is a profound one.
The inclusion of family and tribute to heritage is one of many common themes in Nenno's work. In last year's Lorinda Knight Gallery exhibit, Nenno teamed up with Bobby Tilton in "seam: a family geography," which explored matriarchal influences and sewing as a metaphor for "how our lives are seamed together and how we are bound to a certain history of people and place."
Another theme, Nenno's use of personal narrative, surfaced in a 2003 exhibit at North Idaho College in which the artist used her struggle with insomnia as a point of departure to explore how people "pursue sleep and the images that appear on that edge between day and night." Again, like the bird poised on the rung of the ladder in "Migration," there is that sense of both transition and transcendence, the tensile moment in between.
That Nenno's work comes across as hopeful may be as much the viewer's perception -- glass half-full or half-empty? -- as the artist's intention.
"Needlestack," for example, is a vestige of the Lorinda Knight exhibit, a three-foot-high enclosed form that suggests both a sarcophagus and a cocoon. A window is placed where the eyes of the inhabitant might look out. I imagine myself nestled inside, not cloistered or suffocating but snug, ready to emerge metamorphosed.
I have mentally climbed the ladder-forms, too, envisioning the breathless view one can only obtain by going up, up, up. I remember clinging to the side of a mountainside 20 years ago en route to a Native American clifftop kiva only accessible hand-over-hand up a ladder. The climb upward, tinged with fear and anticipation, is an exquisite reminder of what it means to be human: vulnerable and powerful at the same time. Life is the journey lived in those moments of balance in between.
Mardis Nenno's "Oriel" in the Arcade Gallery, Jundt Art Museum, Gonzaga University. Open weekdays from 10 am-4pm, Saturdays from noon-4 pm until May 31 (call for summer hours); runs March 23-July 31 (closed April 6-9, May 26-28). Artist reception and lecture: Thursday, March 22, at 6 pm. Free. Visit www.gonzaga.edu or call 323-6613.