Opinion: ‘The Moby Project’: Menacing, Seductive

‘The Moby Project’ transforms the staid and rather Quaker plainness of the weathered barn walls and open spaces into a meditation on an old and tragic classic, tied to the sea that surrounds us.
Clayton Orehek’s “A Boggy Picture,” employs neon and paint. Jennifer Landes

   There is something about the fall season here that can be melancholy and a bit menacing. The sea takes on a gray cast and the wind and waves whip up out of nowhere. After a summer of crowds, nonstop noise and hubbub, one gray day you wake up, drive to work, and realize that even the main roads are empty and silent and you are finally alone.

    It’s a contemplative time when familiar places can seem alien just on their own, with no alteration. But it is even more of a disjunctive feeling when the familiar is intentionally made alien, transformed for other purposes — different, maybe, and also a bit menacing.

    Such is the case with “The Moby Project,” being presented at Mulford Farm. Organized by Janet Goleas as part of a potentially ongoing series, this first iteration transforms the staid and rather Quaker plainness of the weathered barn walls and open spaces into a meditation on an old and tragic classic, tied to the sea that surrounds us.

    What an inspired place to conflate the early colonial and 19th-century periods of ocean exploration with the contemporary! The work installed on the property is, with few exceptions, from this year and inspired by the site and the theme, a loose interpretation of threads that run through “Moby-Dick” or other personal takeaways from it.

    Oceans, the moon and navigation, boats, fish, jeopardy, the words from the novel itself, all present themselves as inspiration. It can be as literal as Don Christensen’s soulful reading of the book’s climatic chapter, emanating as a disembodied voice, not unlike Ishmael, coming from a dilapidated shed, itself a victim of nature’s destruction. There is something seductive and confounding about the piece. You want something more, to open the door and see the artist in a corner reading in a dim light, and the disconnection stemming from the surrogate other is unsettling and unmooring. Even with all of the antiquities about the place, one can’t help but think of Vito Acconci and some of his sound and performance pieces that confounded his audiences as they drew them in during the late 1960s.

    Right next to Mr. Christensen’s piece, named for the chapter it was taken from, is a more meditative and personal take on the book’s themes. Junko Sugimoto, a Japanese artist who lives in Brooklyn, took paper and fishing line and metamorphosed the barn into an evocation of a wave so transforming, evocative, and overwhelming that those within might believe for a moment they had just been subsumed by it. The artist said on Saturday that she printed out hundreds of sheets of paper using a predominantly blue-green color palette and rolled them on site with the help of Ms. Goleas and others assisting with the installation.

    According to Ms. Goleas, Chris Lidrbauch and her husband, Chick Bills, installed the lights and the lattice work from Ms. Lidrbauch’s design without a single nail, staple, or hook to mar the barn’s interior, and it is worth a look just for that alone. But this really is the show-stopping piece. Viewers will never feel more like they are experiencing the chapter being read next door than they will in this work.

    After those really strong pieces, most other works might be anticlimactic, mostly through no fault of their own. Ms. Lidrbauch’s “Maelstrom,” a mixed-media installation that looks a bit like a crazy English hat or a wedding cake gone awry, spins in a jerky motion, forcing an abstracted figure to contort. Are the aqua fabric and lacy white borders literal stand-ins for the ripples and foam of a sea whirlpool, or a more symbolic emanation of domesticity? Either way, the “Maelstrom” is one bumpy ride.

    There are a few other monumental works that seem to do best in this environment. One, a Rorschach-style photo printed on vinyl by Joe Pintauro, makes an abstraction of the ocean itself, showing a clear line where the image can be folded into itself. Since it is an obvious abstraction, even one taken from reality, the mind is invited to free-associate, and one might see a mouth and eyes, as if it is the sea itself that threatens to swallow us whole and not the Leviathan. It can be seen just as much an ecological warning, as sea levels rise and threaten our shorelines, as a meditation on the novel.

    Brian Gaman’s prints on vinyl, two pale orbs on black ground, are hung, banner-like, protected by an overhang, on a rear outbuilding. Their titles, “Bob Goes Black” and “Bob Goes Black 2,” have nothing to do with the recent loss of Robert Dash, but it is certainly what some people will think of when they read them. The prints themselves could be a full moon or a single star in an ink-black night sky.

    Similarly, Bryan Hunt’s quite literal “Moon,” of aqua resin and pigment, makes a striking addition under the eaves of one building, hanging there the way some moons here seemed to be placed in the sky just so.

    Boats also get a few go-rounds as vessels for inquiry. In Judy Richardson’s “Moby Boat,” a wood hull is overlaid in wax and filled with wax-dipped containers. It’s sepulchral and hopeful at the same time, offering a means of escape to a different world, perhaps a better one. Steven B. Miller’s “Where Is M. Dick?” is a tiny boat in a patinated steel vortex. The question could be quite rhetorical, as the steel spirals could easily be the belly of the beast itself.

    One of the least literal works, by Dennis Oppenheim from 1972, has an uncanny resonance. Called “Go-Between” and featuring two monitors of black-and-white videos of figures entwined in what could be wrestling holds in another context, look like those clinging to each other for life. There is a sense of older, more classical pictures, such as John Singleton Copley’s “Brook Watson and the Shark,” or, even more monumental, Theodore Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa.” Whatever its original intent, in this context it reminds us how we are bound together for survival.

    There are quite a few other works here, mostly thematic, but a few literal, too, by artists such as Amanda Church, Ms. Goleas, Bonnie Rychlak, Jon Bocksel, Lucy Winton, Hope Sandrow, and Clayton Orehek. Yves Musard offered an interpretive performance at the opening featuring a tarp and a blood-red rope.

    “The Moby Project” is on view through Sunday. A sister group show at Neoteric Fine Art in Amagansett, “Moby Dick,” is on view through Oct. 18.

Junko Sugimoto’s “Moby-Dick” served as the unofficial centerpiece of “The Moby Project” at Mulford Farm. At Saturday’s opening, Yves Musard devised a performance piece inspired by the novel, above.Jennifer Landes
Judy Richardson’s “Moby Boat,” a narrow, waxy hull filled with wax-coated objects, had a transporting effect. Jennifer Landes
Junko Sugimoto printed and rolled hundreds of sheets of paper to make the wave-like shapes that took over the barn. Her young daughter faced her at right. Doug Kuntz
Joe Pintauro's photograph on vinyl "Ocean Vortex" can be seen from Main Street.Jennifer Landes
Steven B. Miller's "Where Is M. Dick?" seems rather ominous in a Jonah-inspired way. Jennifer Landes
Dennis Oppenheim's "Go Between" from 1972.Jennifer Landes
"Bob Goes Black" and "Bob Goes Black 2" by Brian Gaman from 2013.Jennifer Landes