A dimly light white wall gallery with concrete floors has on display three large scale paintings in a corner that resemble some abstracted foliage and fantastical, brightly colorful night skies. In front on the ground is a small sculpture made to look like a campfire with a warm light emanating from within.
Above: Install of Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground at Kavi Gupta

Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground


Review
Megan Bickel


The persistent desire to seek relief from the life of the American South always appears fueled by the insistent longing for its love. As an artist that chooses to work in the South, I never cease from amazement at the resilience that seems buoyant in artists that assertively insist on continuing to do work in the region. It is a romance and a battle that seems corollary to the artist experience in the American South—for me, the American South affords financial flexibility and intellectual space which grant me the ability to be more exploratory and experimental in my practice; but these virtues go hand in hand with political hositility, a battle with outdated gender norms, and marginalization from the industry I work within (the arts).  This romance and searching was astutely articulated in Michi Meko’s Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground at Kavi Gupta, Chicago.

At first, admittedly being a formalist and a frantic materialist, I was attracted to Michi Meko’s use of shifting variations of black paints and tones, holographic pigments, and various media from the artists’ life when enjoying the wilderness such as cornmeal, fish scales, and cast iron pans. There appeared to be a connectedness between  sculptural and dexterial objects and these massive paintings that communicated in tandem with one another as well as philosophically and culturally.

Meko’s exhibit was a welcome reminder of my hometown in Kentucky and my gratuitous hours of solo camping throughout the Appalachias. So I sought it out. Upon entry, Kavi Gupta’s towering gallery was dark, lights dimmed and lowered with spotlights on paintings made to shimmer in the dark. Literally beacons, the paintings cast inward light onto various incipient cartographies and stars that map the sky and the sea.

Crappie Painting: Render An Apocalypse. A Life for a Life. How to Kill a Fish (2022) mirrors a mastery of the type of searching, and announcing, of a presence, made visible in the provocation of glamors, security, and light in the complicated experience of rurality for most people who work in the arts (even more so for Black, Indigenous, POC, LGBTQIA+, and woman identifying artists). The work is inherently dark, relying on black pigments, but is provided the glamor of neon and gold. The painting is balanced on glass preserve jars (filled with what appeared to be cornmeal, I believe) seated in the same wooden crates I use to store my spices. “Crappie,” here refers to the North American fish. The males are known to build nests and protect the eggs and the young. Much to the fish's demise, there is also a mega brand of high visibility fishing line called Mr. Crappie. The line is used in Crappie Painting as an explosion of color: a fluorescent green that highlights the thousands of individual white pencil marks, specs of gold leaf, turquoise, and violet bursts of chalky color amongst the dry but lustrous dark surface.

Kavi Gupta’s curatorial statement described Meko’s work as “incorporating romanticized found objects [and] the visual language of mapping, flags, and wayfinding into his work[.] Meko, then, constructs transcendent aesthetic spaces into which the viewer’s psyche is free to wander.” Yes, this feels like an appropriate synopsis of what Meko’s work addresses—an easing of the muscles and a quiet of neural synapses that occurs when a body leaves highly architectured spaces—such as cities. However, I would be remiss to acknowledge that considering a “transcendent aesthetic space” such as “wilderness” in a commercial gallery felt disingenuous. The sanitized commodification of an experience of solitude feels like an attempt to bottle the romanticized, and oftentimes fictional, serenity that living in rural regions fosters.

I was taken by two different installations that were centered within the gallery. The first Totes McGotes: Burdens Downs. The Hiker (2022) consists of a large, unwieldy pack of camping materials, cardboard boxes, something that looks like it could be a blue tarp or an IKEA bag, and some tie-dyed materials precariously tied. The piece towers atop a small coffee table, coyly seated in a pair of what looked like winter waterproof hiking Merrell’s. The ankles of the hiking boots are stretched, presumably from use, and shoe laces stretch a couple of inches across the floor; they’re tied to a small set of rusted cast iron pots and a small pan.

In a brief conversation with the artist via email, in which I had asked Meko to articulate the distinctions between his sculptural and painterly choices, he stated that it was a matter of specificity of medium, and for this work, a portrait, he stated:

Sculptures and paintings communicate differently, at times I need to make a comment in 3D while also using the 2D paintings as sculptural forms too. The bundled work is a portrait. It’s the baggage I believe we all carry and won’t admit to our own bullshit. I tried to personify that image of myself or ourselves lugging this shit around. It’s also my having a joke by putting boots on a table. I think that gesture is hilarious.

Meko’s comments on the second installation, what appeared to be what was left from a campsite fire, were more minimal. Leaving the primacy of fire to speak for itself, the work didn’t have a name, but included some rocks and charred kindling (subtly indicating the mark of an actual fire within the gallery) on the floor in front of A Beatiful Free Uneasy: The Rhodedendron Cave Hide Out (2022). The reference to a fire creates a frame, a composition, or a paradigm that places the experience of the place that is loosely depicted in the painting, into perspective. The painting illustrates a lookout, a small camp perhaps off a trail, that looks over a ravine and into the night sky. The star burst mark, with blasts of pink and blue and gold leaf and other luminescent materials recall a type of spatial magic that is impossible to articulate. It's felt in your chest, as the term “breathtaking” suggests. For me, this fire recalls silent campsites in the hills of central Kentucky, alone in the evening, feeling overwhelmed by the presence of light beyond this planet.

A Beatiful Free Uneasy depicts a lively darkness. It’s a darkness that doesn’t elude to isolation, but a reminder that we can never see all of the beings within an ecosystem, and perhaps it is with the same capacity that it's impossible to see or hear all of the things that constitute our individual voice. This darkness that percolates in these works expands on both of these experiences.

Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground, in addition to an understanding of “wild” spaces, which are critical to understanding it, also examine the artists’ search for his voice in the wilderness as a Black man. A quote from Meko made available in the exhibition literature became a sort of rock formation in my understanding of the exhibiton:

Being Black in the wilderness is an idea I’ve been trying to chase down or play with for a long time. I wrote a book of field notes and took photographs, and made drawings. A lot of it was trying to hear my voice and understand what that meant—to hear one’s own voice in wild spaces. What does a Black man sound like in the wilderness, versus the voice of John Muir or Ernest Hemingway?

Meko never really answers this question. He ponders it, as opposed to, say Ingrid Pollard, the noted British artist and photographer who in the 1980’s made a series of photographs of Black friends in the British countryside; actively working to place the sight of Black joy into rurality in a series titled Pastoral Interludes. Pastoral Interludes received many observations in the press assuming that the work was about exclusion and isolation. When in fact, the photographs depict any range of emotions, most notably relaxation and joy—these were photos taken with her friends, afterall, during a walk in a lovely place.

Meko’s quest to find his voice in the “wilderness” is cathartic. I always found the trail alluring because it was a singular time where I was able to hear myself figure out problems.  Meko appears to be a fairly mystical man, referring to his studio as a “sacred space, a laboratory where one gets to test hypotheses and search for a truth through the work.”  Therefore, I’d like to consider that the wilderness, here, can also be a metaphor for finding spirituality where tropes of spirituality haven’t actively been constructed–such as a studio, or the train. Or perhaps, its about a guy who just really enjoys playing in the woods, and that’s all it needs to be.
A white wall displaying four artworks with a sculpture in the foreground. From left to right, there are two photos in light wood frames on the wall, followed by a photograph printed on fabric and draped on the wall, and then another framed photo. The sculpture is a plate carrier vest with patches embroidered with white text, resting on a wood stand.
A dimly light white wall gallery with concrete floors has on display three large scale paintings on a wall that resemble some abstracted foliage and fantastical, brightly colorful night skies. In front on the ground is a small sculpture made to look like a campfire with a warm light emanating from within.
Install of Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground at Kavi Gupta

A dark, abstract painting of textured black, gray, and purses, dotted sparsely with spots of gold and bright green. Certain brushstrokes are arranged to look like foliage or small fireworks that blend into the field of color.
A Beautiful Free Uneasy: The Rhododendron Cave hide out (2022), Acrylic, Aerosol, Oil Pastel, Gold Leaf, Aerosol Hologram Glitter, White Colored Pencil, India ink Sequins, Tassel, 4lb Mr Crappie Hi Viz Mono lament, Gouache on Canvas, 66 x 84 in

A dimly lit white wall gallery space with concrete floors has two large format paintings that resemble a colorful, slightly fantastical night sky, behind a floor standing sculpture of a wooden living room style chair topped with many colorful bags, jackets, and other camping and outdoor gear, that mound up twice and high as the chair itself.
Install of Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground at Kavi Gupta

A detail view of a sculpture that consists of a chair leg inside of a hiking shoe, a shoelace of which trails behind and is tied to several rusty cast iron pots resting heavily on the floor.

Install of Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground at Kavi Gupta

A hanging sculpture on a white wall in the shape of a painting that consists of many parallel rows of weathered looking mustard colored tassels, interspersed with other colored thread like red, purple, and gray blue. Some thread is gently hanging out of the frame.
Oak Catskins: Damn Annoying Squigs. Swollen Eyes By Moonlight, An unseen Painting (2022) Tassel, Acrylic, Aerosol, Oil Pastel, Gold Leaf, Aerosol Hologram Glitter, White Colored Pencil, India ink, Yellow GA Corn Grits, Gouache on Wood Panel, 44 x 41 in


Notes:

1. “Michi Meko.” Kavi Gupta Gallery, https://kavigupta.com/artists/94-michi-meko/.
2. Visually interesting is the cord that swaddles these materials together. I felt resemblance to the gestural looping that results in a mapping gesture in the paintings; both acts requiring a wide movement of the arm.
3. Michi Meko, email coorespondance with the author in September, 2022.
4. “Michi Meko.” Kavi Gupta Gallery.
5. Tate. “Ingrid Pollard Born 1953.” Tate, 1 Jan. 1989 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/ingrid-pollard-15859.
6. “Michi Meko.” Art Papers, 21st Annual ART PAPERS Art Auction // Artist Spotlight Interview / ART PAPERS, 22 Jan. 2020, https://www.artpapers.org/michi-meko/.

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A VR tour of Michi Meko’s Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground, courtesy of Kavi Gupta, can be viewed here.

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9.29.22

Megan Bickel [she/they] (MFA, MA) is a trans-disciplinary artist, data analyst, writer, and educator working at the intersections of painting, new media, and data visualization. She is the founder and organizer of houseguest gallery in Louisville, Kentucky.

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