Written By: Kathy Rodriguez
At first glance, Mitchell Lonas’ work is three-dimensional. In the introductory piece to his show – The Wrench Series No. 33 – and most of its successors, a two-dimensional frame confines an absorbent black abyss from which tendrils of fine silver wire appear to thread their ways outwards. They are like streaked light eking out from an iridescent nebula made a cloudy tangle of line, which, though floating off-center in deep space, anchors light to itself. The shape and mark-making that creates the nebula evokes a nest, a whirl of threads spun together to enclose and hold space. This first impression, however is mostly an illusion.
In actuality, the works in the “Wrench Series” at Gallery Bienvenu are strictly two-dimensional. Lonas adapts the centuries-old sgraffito technique of scratching through a black background to reveal a contrasting image. Shining threads of metal sheeting and faint patinas of soft color hidden beneath the darkness meet light after being found through excavation of the surface. When light hits the curvature of the revealed lines, the threads that form the nest shapes seem to remove themselves from the picture plane and push into our space. But, the only sculptural element is the faint burr left ridged in the substrate by the carving tool. As critic Richard Speer notes, the simplicity and straightforwardness of the meditative marks recalls the austerity and delicacy of Japanese ink painting and calligraphy. There is a suddenness that suggests moments of Zen-like enlightenment in unkempt “threads” spraying from otherwise meticulously woven networks of line. Their seeming spontaneity evokes the moment of finding a nest tucked in the branches of a tree. They are surprising and fresh, and result in images that are compellingly mysterious and almost without precedent.
The wrench is a fictional bird created by Lonas’ mother, who found a nest made of hair from his father’s horse and gave it to the artist. In a short video created for the artist by the Our Voice agency in Asheville, North Carolina – where the artist resides and for which he participated in an auction – Lonas reveals that, when asked what bird created it, his mother mistakenly combined the words “finch” and “wren” into the name for one mythical animal. In this show, Lonas displays three of these tiny horse-hair “wrench nests” like precious artifacts. They sit underneath a plexiglass case, protected and pristine. As art from nature, they are marvelously prefect in their construction, immediately reminiscent of home, safety, and evoke the care and time taken to create them. It is easy to image an egg softly cupped in these forms, protected by a watchful mother.
The tree from which some nests came is reproduced in Southern Yellow Pine, which hangs at the rear of the gallery. Its white background and delicate line work makes it unlike everything else, appearing quieter than the other works. In the design of the show, this piece has the sense of the mother who once provided nests to her young. Tucked away in the corner, it is unlike and separate from what she helped nurture. Though formally different than the other pieces, it seems appropriately included in the lineage and progression of the work.
The disparity between the softness of the actual nests and the sharp contrasts of the hanging pieces enhances the sense of difference and separateness suggested by the tree. Void and loss are contained in the spaces embraced by the cut lines, which, though delicate, also slow the raggedness of the tools made to use them. The sharp contrast also suggests a kind of scientific inquiry; the nest in the hanging pieces seem to float outward from a background to which they might be pinned, like a specimen on display. The images are separated from their natural environments through representational, two- dimensional reproduction and through their isolation in negative space. In a sense, Lonas seems to investigate the forms he chooses as much as celebrate and reinvent their beauty with his glimmering materials.
The titles create a kind of taxonomy that furthers the idea of scientific observation and categorization. Lonas specifies the shapes of nest by type of bird, as in Robin Nest No. 1. This form is densely knit lines that swirl towards a solid rim and enclose a long and narrow space. In contrast, Carolina Wren Nest loosely encircles a soft, dark space accented by wild tendrils. The peculiarity of each form suggests the uniqueness of home, of individual protection and nurturing met distinctly through the features of these structures. Other nests are given only numbers, indicating one in a series, such as Nest No. 404; it is like the natural nest under the plexiglass in shape, but seems more generalized than others by its mechanical reproduction on panel. This is perhaps to suggest that sometimes, home is wherever it can be found, or taken.
Lonas states that his aim was to create “something original” through unconventional means. While there are formal precedents for the work, the objects that result from his process are neither painting nor drawing nor sculpture. They are in a category by themselves. The contrast in both the uniqueness of their making. They embody oppositions of lost and found, occupied and abandoned, floating and grounded. The tension is part of their beauty, as is the mystery of the illusion of space they create and the unlikely combination of material and effects. Lonas has created an intriguing body of work that suggests both the familiarity of home and displacement from it, summing up a drama of existence in what ultimately reads as a quiet spindle of threaded experiences.