By James Foritano
Lowell, MA – With my GPS barking at me, I rolled into the visitor parking lot at UMass Lowell’s McGauvran Student Center only half a week after the opening of my friend and fellow artist Chehalis Hegner’s exhibit “Re-Visioning in the Garden of Eden.” Better late than never.
Besides, I’ve always held that inspiration doesn’t have a shelf life, and what I saw in the “Garden of Eden” confirmed my belief. Irony, subversive humor, lyricism, craft all bloomed, fresh as creation, in this ‘re-visioned’ garden.
Where to start? Ever notice how when your GPS stops barking, you have to orient yourself? O.K. I said, I’m in the Garden of Eden, obviously post-modern, so what has happened since then? Uhhh…complications! Individual choice! Doubt! Competition!
Now sometimes evil is creative destruction, as the economist Joseph Schrumpeter and, no doubt, a benevolent God would have it. It hurts but is finally for ‘the greater good.’
Is that the ‘evil’ portrayed in the ironically titled “Love/Love.” On the surface it’s a tennis lesson, with the expert helping the tyro – hands on. But we all know how corroded surfaces have become since the Garden of Eden became complicated.
So, looking deeper, we see that age is gripping youth there on the court somewhat tightly. Difficult to read the entire expression on ‘coach’s’ face, somewhat down-turned, as he tutors his ‘student’ with a whole-body grip. Could that expression be a leer?
And yet, they seem to be dancing together as both their leading feet point in the same direction. But…where to? The coach has a grip on the ball and on his ‘student’ reminiscent of a classic wrestling hold. And she, a knock-kneed ingénue, high-heeled and perfectly coifed seems to have brought all her feminine artillery onto the polite confines of this court. What kind of “love” it seems to ask is being birthed here? A ‘winner take all’ love? Or the stalemate of zero that Love/Love means in the game of tennis?
Behind this drama, mountains and plains stretch away like a new world – brave and complicated.
Across the way from Love/Love is another photograph with a less complicated drama – on the surface anyway. “Boots for Hannah Senesh” is a collage of painting and photography in which the author’s boots leap out in photographic clarity from a background of earthy blacks and browns. These are the boots Chehalis wore when she visited a Nazi death-camp while thinking of one of its hero-victims, now enshrined in history.
These boots reference Van Gogh’s painting of his own much-used boots and the iconic struggle he waged to push forward his modernist agenda — a struggle that, like Hannah Senesh, he both won and lost.
Both boots, most viewers would say, seem to stride forward, wrinkles and all, each against their own particular evil. But the wear of each pair is indisputable. Are we merely ‘looking pretty’ at a history we’d rather not look at ‘head on’ and glimpse, thereby, the head of a serpent?
A lyrical beauty of craft, meticulously layered, yet spontaneous as intuition, and of composition both stable and dynamic lightens the existential gravity of these visions.
My own internal GPS orients me towards the humor puckishly evident in the “Martyr” series where the ‘Madonna,’ Chehalis herself, might be varnished and gilded, but not vanquished. The woman peering out at us, self-sacrificing but alert to her world, seems fully able to grasp at her own destiny should it appear to swerve from the nailed-down tracks of ‘predestination.’
In “Falling Magdalen,” she seems as balanced as a swimmer or glider in the pinkish void through which she falls. Swathed in a diaper of newsprint and gauze, she is ready to absorb even the incontinence such a fall might provoke in the doughtiest of souls.
The guys of this new post-lapsarian world also don’t escape the humor as well as the angst of their predicament between heaven and earth. “Adam and Even” could portray the male side of Eve jousting, with stern gaze, at her wholly male counterpart; or, it could be two different sides of a self-involved Adam about to challenge each other to game that looks to involve… multiple pink Frisbees?
It’s a new world beyond the gates of that garden we inhabited so long ago for all too short a time. It’s full of trials, death, indignity, as well as opportunities for heroism, or at least some trust in oneself and, perhaps, others for…long enough to make some difference?
There to record it all in candid, flash-bulb immediacy, (with a bit of seamless touch-up) is Chehalis Hegner. Worth a trip to Lowell — whichever side you’re on.
(“Re-Visioning in the Garden of Eden: Extended Media Photographs by Chehalis Hegner” continues through September 21 at University Gallery at the McGauvran Student Center/Union on UMass Lowell South, 71 Wilder Street, Lowell. Call (978) 934-3494.)