By Taryn Plumb
Harvard, MA – “Moby Dick”: Herman Melville’s classic tale of obsession. Adored by academics and mere lovers of the English word; abhorred by others forced to dissect and regurgitate it in high school and college.
But for Greg Lookerse? It’s not only an inspiration for art — it is art.
For his solo exhibition, “Literary Soil,” the California-born artist tore pages from his copy of the 1851 classic, then smeared them with pigments to simulate roiling waves or thick oil slicks, and grew salt crystals atop them to create a briny, crusty sensation.
The end result is a tactile representation of the written word.
“Overall the show for me is about the roots and ideas that come from reading,” said Lookerse, “and so each piece is somehow tied to a specific book or story or legend or myth.”
The exhibit will be on display at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass., through August 20; the work was crafted during Lookerse’s 2017 artist-in-residence at both Fruitlands and The Old Manse in Concord.
Lookerse, who describes himself as a “reader who does not know how to write,” creates complex, thought-provoking pieces that intertwine elements of classic literature and religious practices, and explore what he calls the “incongruities” between the physical and metaphysical planes.
“A huge influence of my work is looking at western art history and the ways in which religion and philosophy intermix,” said the artist. “I’m trying to come full circle and think about all of these different disciplines, all of these different ideas, and see how it works within the context of the literature pieces.”
For example, in one piece he cut and folded pages from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature and Other Essays,” arranging them in a mandala pattern that could be a flower — or an ornately-decorated cathedral window.
Meanwhile, Henry David Thoreau’s journal is transformed into a labyrinth encircling and curling around a stark praying bench.
Other pieces in the show — around 30 in total — include a wall of 50 black icons with a kneeling bench, and rocks of various sizes, colors and shapes encased under glass domes.
Lookerse, who identifies as a sculptor, painter and performance artist (among other descriptors,) embraces abstraction. Words, after all, he said, are just that.
“Abstraction as a whole I think is really misunderstood outside of the academic art culture,” he said.
He added that, “There’s a level of absurdity through all art, and then there’s the artist asking the audience to have a bit of faith in what they’re presenting,” whether that’s purely enjoying the aesthetics, thinking about its implications, or developing their own interpretation.
Lookerse’s particular style of abstraction arises not only from his themes, but his process.
He describes himself as “a little like a Swiss Army knife,” using whatever tools and materials he needs in the studio — manipulating them to explore their limitations and figure out new ways to use them – to bring tangibility to an idea. There’s a lot of tinkering; a lot of mistakes.
“It’s a process of exploring and trying new things,” he said. And eventually, “you find a little nougat of ‘Hmmm, that was interesting.’”
(“Greg Lookerse: Literary Soil” remains on view through August 20 at Fruitlands Museum, 102 Prospect Hill Rd., Harvard, Mass. For more information, call (978) 456-3924.).