The work of Rochester-based artist and educator Heather Layton is consumed by the ailing world. Much of her art is action-oriented, and has taken the form of everything from installations meant to evoke compassion, to writing a letter to every head of state in apology for America's aggression, and traveling to dangerous places to encourage artists and emerging filmmakers. Apogee Wine Bar is hosting a rare opportunity to view Layton's meditative studio-practice work.
In recent years, Layton has created installations aimed at confronting the viewer with realities which may pass under the average American's radar. Some of this work is created in collaboration with her husband and partner-in-goodness, Brian Bailey, who is also an educator and works to help provide technological equipment and opportunities for Rochester youth to gain media literacy.
At Apogee, six of Layton's medium- to large-scale tea and watercolor paintings on paper are well-placed in and well-fitted to the cozy, chic wine bar. Most of the images feature women dressed in simple clothing, with bare legs and feet, and with braided or flowing hair. The figures are beautifully rendered, depicting shared struggles and strife with an almost mythic tone. A relative lack of setting — with little exception, the figures exist in a pure white, limbo-like space — adds to the feeling that these women are not from one particular place or time, but stand in for every woman, everywhere, always.
"This series reflects my concerns about a culture that rewards self-absorption," Layton says in her provided statement. She warns that while on a small scale, "the focus on individual power and material wealth may appear harmless, it becomes catastrophic when gained at the expense of the local, national, and/or global population." These paintings are not models of charity, but visions of reciprocation, and describe a dream of communities which prioritize compassion over competition, cooperation over exploitation, and collective responsibility over personal indulgence, she says.
In a few of the works, a repeating motif of richly patterned bundles appear, alluding to beautiful textiles hailing from cultures around the world. In the large painting, "Pile," a mountain of these colorful bundles stands alone, off-center of the image and stacked so high it fades away into the milky atmosphere. The bundles can be read in many ways, as symbols of collective burdens borne, or collective gifts offered, by women throughout time.
This particular work reminded me of "I Know It Happened and It Happened Like This," an installation Layton created on the George Eastman House lawn in 2008. Grounded in the premise of our mutual, collective responsibility to our communities, Layton initiated the construction of a mountain of stuffed animals — an impossible to ignore, participatory tribute based on small street-side memorials people create in response to a homicide. She invited the public to join in, and received such a response that a crane — and supportive armature made by fellow artist/educator, Allen Topolski — was required to construct the installation.
This studio work is subtle storytelling, meditative, and less confronting than what she calls her "intervention" work. Layton's art at times manifests as a hyperbolic vision of an important truth; other it times flips a narrative to involve the audience more directly in an abstract-to-them reality, and dares the viewer to ignore a glaring issue.
"Fallen Giraffe" features a group of women pushing, pulling, binding, or sprinting to the toppled beast. My first impression was that these were hunters, attempting to drag the animal back to a village for food, but with the utter absence of weapons or blood, it occurred to me that the women might be cooperating in the struggle to right the heavy mammal.
Similarly, in "Hospice," a swarm of women surround a great, fallen tree, bringing propping pillows and blankets and rugs, and buckets of water for roots to sip from. Others bind root segments, calmly going about the work of nurturing.
In "Wishing Well" groups of women are gathered in various stances at the precarious and grassy edges of a cliff, waiting their turns to drop their colorful parcels into a half-full, stone-lined ravine. One pack-burdened woman speaks to a younger girl, another sits contemplative on the edge with legs dangling, cradling a bundle on her lap.
The image is striking, reading from afar as floating islands of women in a white abyss, the grouping of packages a swelling, heavy shape on the paper. Up close, the narrative crystalizes. If the packs are symbols of contributions, the image can be read as women using their offerings to bridge a deep divide and gain unity between the separated groups.
"Beautiful Burden" features an arching line of women bent double under the weight of towering packs on their backs, reminiscent of a line of refugees. The line evaporates into the distance, the details of burdens secured by ropes crisscrossing breasts fading away.
In her provided statement, Layton says this work "is a tribute to the infinite number of women who have not adequately been recognized for the contributions they have made to our society." Because women have not historically held the glory-gaining positions of presidents, CEOs, or war heroes, she says, "the extraordinary weight they have carried from one generation to the next has been largely invisible." But Layton seeks to point out and pay tribute to the skilled roles of mothers, teachers, partners, caregivers, and mentors which have been absolutely vital to the health of the communities and essential to the survival of the human race, she says.
Tucked over in a lounge-y corner of the space, "Resting Forest" is the perfect balance to the other images. The dreamy work features a grove of trees emerging from the ethereal, nothing-space, each wrapped with the now un-bundled patterned cloth, forming hammocks upon which the women lounge and loll.