Essay by Ellen Berkovitch
For Vera Sprunt exhibition catalogue, Whole
of the University of New Mexico Art Museum
Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2002
Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum
Wilmington, North Carolina, 2003
I want to tell you something.
Face to face with Vera Sprunt’s intricately worked compositions, I arrive finally at the thought that every known boundary between human beings must eventually cede to the common country of the senses. We are composing all the time, arranging what we see, taste, smell, hear and touch into a condition of wakefulness we name perception. Communicated, perception holds the promise to let us know one another. Perceiving a lack of understanding can render us speechless. At such an instant, it seems easy enough, as in childhood or in art, simply to take another human being by the hand and point. Look, I want to show you something. Listen, I want to tell you something. Then comes a response, songlike in its rhythm. Show me! Tell me! I embrace the shared secret, and our selves, wondrously made.
Shared secrets are encoded in the cells of Vera Sprunt’s creations. She starts with a camera, kneeling on a beach or in a tulip bed, focused closely on the very small. Then she hand-assembles a collage from fragments of the photographic images. Re-shot onto Orthofilm, the many parts become a unified ground upon which she overlays hand-painted sheets of transparent Mylar. The formal process makes the end result a richly tones and shadowed thing that you can’t just look, but must look through.
The secrets Sprunt’s manipulations reveal require instigating the imagination to notice them. Here is a double ring of sand castles rounding a tide pool moat. There in full regalia a Southern garden flaunts its colors, velvety and voluptuous.
Hover outside these gentle worlds and you’ll home in on the strange, even surreal mystery bedded in their midst. A disembodied ear recurs, festooned with flowers or hued crimson in a black void beyond the arranged scene. The ear is a pregnant object, metaphorically speaking. An ominous presence, it seems almost to tick. Yet the fragment of time Sprunt’s work argues for is a stalled moment. Like a pause in music, it begs a longer look.
If ears could talk, the ears of Sprunt’s models (for she incorporates ears of relatives, friends, colleagues) might say, Hark, we populate an omnipresent symphony of the visual. A beach, and the tireless surf. A garden, and the light rain that makes birds sing. A boy, reticent and remote, turns his face into rock as if into the surface of the green pockmarked moon.
The sort of loneliness you might intuit in these utopian places reminds of the last stanza of an e.e. cummings poem:
but the very song of (as mountains
feel and lovers) singing is silence
For all that is accessible can ultimately be elusive, the work seems to understand. Biography usually is cited as the reason why Sprunt, whose sister is deaf, repeatedly selects the ear as her object of regard. The ear becomes Sprunt’s toy-sized elephant in the room, the thing galumphing about, in a psychological sense, but not meant to be discussed. You might imagine the ear as a taboo that encloses the Eskimo idea that all taboos are holy. A site of deep soundings or vibrations, the ear echoes a fairy tale told to children – the sound of captured tides – as it rings with the confinement of our glorious vitality.
Sprunt’s southern-ness – she was raised in North Carolina – manifests overtly in her process. The curled shell of the ear forms a Baroque spiral. Moreover, Sprunt’s creative process begins in assemblage. With an ironic nod to the southern craft of decoupage, she uses scissors to create pattern that reads like a meeting of a crazy quilt with panels of stained glass. The scale that ensues is mural-like and bold, libidinous as a David Hockney swimming pool.
Sprunt’s history as a lithographer helps explain the subtleties and textural effects she composes in color. You can’t help but notice in her work that the color relationships are hyped up, augmented, better than real. Fittingly, such acts front-load the deed of restitution and improvement Sprunt’s art proposes: to ratchet up sight for those who can’t hear, to ratchet up sense straining to meet the oracles of the every day.
These moments that Sprunt has captured are profoundly optimistic amid even dark times. They offer a world that asks to pause at places of creative sustenance that have no words.