In skydiving, the term Blue Skies, Black Death originated from the parachute infantry motto “Mors Ab Alto” in Latin, or “death from above”. To skydivers, it can be regarded as a greeting / farewell, or to indicate a fatality during a skydive. Yet, the exhibition BLUESKIES/BLACK DEATH by Noelle Mason at Thomas Robertello Gallery in Chicago is not about skydiving nor death. It is a metaphor more closely aligned with the articulation of linear narratives in a nonlinear practice . For Mason “Mors Ab Alto” is more an understanding of presence and absence, or in reflection of David Hume’s perspectives on immediate sensations in parallel to “impressions” (as if in wax) of sensations.
In otherwords, the metaphor functions as a movement between representation and abstraction, emphasizing the beauty, power, and emotional resonance possible when opposing notions act in collaboration. Some of Mason’s work offers a somewhat recognizable portrayal of skydivers filtered through artistic interpretation, and others are distilled vague forms, with minimal or unexpected colors, characterizing abstractions. All works are eloquently expressionistic renderings that are open to layered translations.
On first impression, the collection of photographs “Decision Altitude” and photogravures “Incident Report” are representative of the jump, flight, power and consequence all blurred into rushing air and moving body parts. In skydiving terms, the photo works are close representations to “Ground Rush”, the optical illusion that the ground is abruptly rushing up to meet you, which occurs if you free-fall past your usual altitude before opening the parachute. But in art, the skydive becomes as much about material strategy as a source of interest. In the context of the exhibition, Mason highlights the unusual content of each work by listing skydiving among the materials. This strategy transforms an action into more than a conceptual mechanism. The skydive becomes an expressionistic tool much like a paint brush. Allowing Mason to flip our expectations and enabling us to look at things differently, to consider materials anew and to create formal configurations which become significant on purely formal grounds.
To further emphasize Mason’s articulation of representation together with abstraction, the works “Colorado River Delta” and “El Paso/Ciudad Juarez” (part of the series “Ground Control”) are displayed alongside “Decision Altitude”. Visually, these pieces do not work together. Because their material processes are so different, their aesthetics in such contrast, initially they appeared to be from a different artists. However, on realization the two bodies of work are displayed in collaboration, Mason’s abstract language and connections slowly fall into place. “Ground Control” (exhibited on the floor) reveals itself as a body of work with heavy socio/political content, dealing with barriers, technology, poverty and need. In contrast, “Decision Altitude”(on the walls) is the result of a sport, an exhibition of wealth and freedom. Together these two bodies of work combine because of their conflict. One cannot talk of wealth without poverty, nor freedom without limits. The display of contrasts not only resonates through the concepts behind the works, but it pulls through into the visual discourse, where the work on display jars for attention, while in the same moment needs the other to be fully recognizable.
Yet, what all works agree upon is the mode of translation. Mason is less concerned with storytelling and more preoccupied with the process of establishing connections, associations and transformations. She carefully balances in the gray area between abstraction and representation, opening up layers of interpretations and breaking down barriers not only between media, but amidst disciplines.