Unique exhibit opens at Bethel gallery

Melanie Zuercher
Special to the Kansan
Derek Owens' “To Have Been Astronauts (The Black Hotel),” 2020; boxes, photos and text are part of a new exhibit at the Bethel College Art Gallery.

The results of a long-distance collaboration between two artists during a time of pandemic are now on display at Bethel College.

“After the End of the End of the World” is currently in the Regier Gallery in Luyken Fine Arts Center. The collaborators are Rachel Epp Buller, Bethel associate professor of visual arts and design, and artist and writer Derek Owens, of New York.

The gallery is open weekdays, with no admission charge. Due to the pandemic, there will be no public reception for this exhibit. Face coverings must be worn and physical distancing practiced on the Bethel campus.

Epp Buller, who is also the director of the Regier Art Gallery, said that the show was planned and timed for students in the Book Arts class she is teaching this semester.

“Derek will be coming as a virtual visiting artist to talk with students about his work and answer questions based on what they see in the show,” she said.

Rachel Epp Buller's “Keep still. Wait. This is the moment of no turning back,” 2021; a hanging paper installation is part of a new exhibit at the Bethel College Art Gallery.

In their artist statement, Owens and Epp Buller say, “Over the past 12 months [January through December 2020], we set for ourselves a project of long-distance collaboration.

“Each month, we sent each other a selection of words from texts we’d each been reading. The rule was that we wouldn’t disclose to each other where the language had come from, thereby decontextualizing the prose somewhat.

“This gave the words we sent each other a vaguely mysterious quality – a little like messages in a bottle, or fortunes in fortune cookies.

“As recipients, we gave ourselves the task of responding to any of these words in visual form. One set of words per month, one work of art per month, 24 works in total over the course of this strange pandemic year.”

The results include artist books, sculpture, collage and photo boxes.

“To continually mix and match language over the span of a year – to treat all these sentences as if they were scraps of artist papers and ephemera, to literally be cut and pasted and glued together – brought us to a point where the words became more and more abstract, no less materials for art-making than pigment and oil,” the statement continues.

“In my case I used cigar boxes, old picture frames, vintage makeup cases, an antique scrapbook and wallets as ‘containers’ for the language, figuratively and literally,” Owens said.

“In some cases I took a fairly minimalist approach – just sticking the language to a mirror in a compact case, or to an old photo in a black painted box.

“But for a sequence of 12 framed images, I resorted to a form of collage making I’m more used to, combining language with vintage papers and artist papers. And in the scrapbook, I didn’t make collage but rather sought to make pairings … between the language and some image.

“In all these cases, the moments of language can’t help but be further transformed by being wedded to image, color, texture and container. Just as every word houses a substrata of current and obsolete meanings, that complexity is further amplified when the language is rendered inseparable from the new ‘pages’ it finds itself printed upon – box, scrapbook, frame backing, stainless steel powder case, faux leather wallet.”

The statement on the full exhibit concludes, “When we recognize that words and grammar can be materials to chop, mix, obliterate, erase, put back together, glue, burn, whatever – well, writing is no longer something that must sprout from the blank page of one’s head, but rather a readily available, unlimited body of supplies that can be added to one’s toolbox.”

“After the End of the End of the World” will be in the Regier Art Gallery through March 5. Regular gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.