Adam David Brown’s Out of the Blue, on display at MKG127 Gallery in Toronto until June 25, is an exhibition full of skies that contain the potential for both the infinite void and unsettled atmosphere. It’s a conceptually-driven cloudscape, a meditation on form, ephemerality, the balance between precision and approximation and the relationships between atmosphere, human perspective and the mathematic and physical abstractions that structure and underlie experience.
Each of the six works in the show is a kind of surface study, a reworking of material possibilities for projection, incision and delicate adhesion. The materials and methods will be familiar if you’ve seen Brown‘s work before, but they fit here, where the recurring reference surface is so difficult to define (just try and touch the skin of a cloud or give me a clear measurement of where a fog bank ends).
There’s precision in the execution, whether in the swirling black and white lines in the print-ready PVC panels of Afterlife’s tetraptych or the measured text of Epoch, cut into a sheet of gypsum drywall so that the dust and paper coating left by the removal of the inscription’s letters collect on the ledge behind the glass at the bottom of the frame. Taxonomic terms hover, cloudlike, without definition: cirrus, cirrostratus, cirrus aviaticus cirrocumulus, altostratus, altocumulus, nimbostratus, cumulus, stratus, cumulonimbus, stratocumulus.
To get the meaning of Epoch’s terms you need to turn and face Definition of a Cloud, where they’re re-stated, a series of numbered, diagrammatic drawings, stratified according to atmospheric layers of differing pressure and density. Each work shifts focus: from word to image, to composite mythology, to multiple worlds, to the pulsar the points the way from the heart of a nebula, to the infinite approximation of the proportions of a circle.
There’s a strong 19th century undercurrent to the show (even the typographic choices make you think of an antique text book, all even spacing and elegant serifs). References like Gustave Doré, whose illustrations for editions of Dante, Milton and the Bible are the source material for the could forms in Afterlife, make explicit connections between these light filled surfaces and the dark sublimity of 19th century landscapes.
Go back to Doré’s originals and you’ll find images of the Divine Comedy where, like the 52 stacked skies that give tunneling depth to Out of the Blue, seemingly co-existent world-spheres replace Dante’s spiralling cosmic form. The taxonomy and definitions of cloud types are equally part of this source material, dividing and categorizing the shifting shapes of the upper atmosphere alongside Darwinian mapping of species relations, their set terms stabilizing the world’s variability.
Brown’s addition of contrails to his list of forms, especially with the plane drawn in like a pilot’s pin, is a funny way of asking the question of consequences. What are we doing, exactly, manipulating the stratosphere?
As meteorological phenomena, clouds are both sources and signs of weather events, but as atmospheric entities they’re effects, the products of the relationships between pressure, temperature and water molecules: unstable, temperamental, ephemeral. The grounding concepts of Out of the Blue shift and reform, ideas like clouds changing shape, surface, density. But it’s an approachable metaphor, the mystery of the subject not in the majestic but in the opposition between the reduction to clearly defined categories and the multiplicity of possible forms.
Though it alludes to them, in the contrasts it draws between definition and mutability, the similar forms of smoke and clouds, paradise and inferno, the show doesn’t venture into the awful possibilities of our uncontrolled, long running, planetary experiment. Instead it contemplates blue skies, inhuman infinity and the softness that floats between us and the void.
There’s a passage in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights where the novel’s second Catherine and her cousin, the fading, fickle and fairly awful Linton Heathcliff, compare their thoughts on perfect days, prototypes for heaven. While Linton wants blue skies and stillness, Catherine prefers wind and life and fluffy white clouds. She calls his heaven-day lifeless. He calls hers drunk.
When you’re done with clean white walls and stark surfaces, go back outside. Look up and daydream your way over clouds both natural and unnatural, witness forces at play in the atmosphere of the Anthropocene. Tumbled together by the right wind, Catherine’s clouds have the potential to accumulate into a bank of thickly packed cumulonimbus or, compressed by pressure, to drive higher, towering nimbostratus, ready for a storm. 19th century drama, Doré’s cloudy heaven and smoking hell.
The contrails vanish like wisps of vapor, cirrus clouds, smoke.
MKG127 is located in Toronto at 1445 Dundas St. West between Dufferin St. and Gladstone Ave. on the south side. Hours are Wednesday to Saturday from 12 to 6 PM or by appointment. For more information call 647-435-7682.