The new Witter Gallery one-woman show "Unseen Altars" isn't the kind of thing you go to and make immediate sense of. It's the kind of show you wrinkle your brow at, pretend to your companions that you get it oh-so-completely, go home and roll about in your sleep for a couple nights trying to sort it all out.
Susan Van Geest's work is eclectic, organic and free-spirited - a nice way to say that it's all over the place. It gives the impression of an experiment, of spontenaity. You want to look at it closely.
It ranges from a massive wall hanging built around a classic-style chair, all of which somehow gives off a sense of melancholy - as if someone is missing - but the interpretation is best left to the individual.
The most fascinating piece may well be one of the smallest - a sculpture no bigger than a large angel food cake. (Pictured above). It is made of chunks of marble that fit together into a miniature coliseum. Amid the hard angles rest a variety of tiny nude figures fashioned from clay and molded softly into the most emotional of poses - from love to angst. They seem to want so badly to speak to you, but you can only guess at what motivation they were created.
There are wry and spartan line drawings here, photographs capturing the loss of a falling-down home, pieces of three-dimensional art born of found objects including old books or the innards of a old piano. A mysterious forearm chipped painstakingly into a block of white marble.
You won't get it, certainly not all of it, and that's part of the charm. Art isn't a bad thing to have to toss around in your brainpan, as opposed to all the other forms of instant and obvious gratification that our culture is built upon. Art was once well described as "knocking about in the studio and bumping into things."
In fact, Van Geest left none of the usual instructions for home the show goes together. The Witter director had to go on guesswork and intuition, which heightens the curiosity.
Van Geest, formerly of Des Moines, graduated from Northwestern in 1995, and has worked with museums and as an art professor at Dordt and Northwest Iowa Community College before her recent relocation to Minneapolis, where she continues to paint and sculpt in her own studio. Her work can also be seen at the International Museum of Collage in Fort Worth, Texas.
In a search for truth, free will and judgement in her complicated show, the materials of stone, metal, wood and cloth items as well as more traditional artistic mediums, serve as a reminder to the viewer that almost anything can be recycled into art. So, what do you have in your attic?
The exhibit is on display at the Witter through October 31.