Hindsight and song: The Commission centerpiece captures a transient moment

Brice Brown (right) designed the modular panels for the collaborative sculpture, “Glass and Bridle, Pomegranate and Pears: On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union,” at Adventure Farm. Photo: Martyn Kyle Brice Brown (right) designed the modular panels for the collaborative sculpture, “Glass and Bridle, Pomegranate and Pears: On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union,” at Adventure Farm. Photo: Martyn Kyle

On May 9, Brice Brown and Alan Shockley celebrated their 10th anniversary. And theirs was truly a perfect union, if only for one night.

Their collaborative work, “Glass and Bridle, Pomegranate and Pears: On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union,” unveiled at Adventure Farm on Saturday. The one-night-only exhibition was the centerpiece of The Commission, a multimedia celebration held by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), a working retreat for national and international artists.

Artists are accepted into VCCA’s competitive program for anywhere from two weeks to two months, during which time they receive private studio space and bedrooms, three meals a day and the freedom to work uninterrupted by daily life.

Brown and Shockley met almost a decade ago when they both held residencies at VCCA.

“An artists residency program is like camp. You might have forced socialization with other weirdo artists, which sometimes works well and sometimes doesn’t,” Brown said in an interview with C-VILLE. “I met Alan at lunch. We started talking and, you know, you do that whole ‘Where are you from? What do you do?’ bullshit, and once you get past that you sort of hit it off.” They had similar interests and hatched the idea to collaborate at some point in the future.

In 2007, Brown was given the opportunity to launch a show in the VertexList gallery in Brooklyn, so he and Shockley developed an installation called “Selling the Sound of My Voice.”

“Brice created 88 1′ x 1′ tiles,” Shockley wrote to C-VILLE. “He used a limited palette of themes that repeated in different combinations and colors, and I created a musical piece that had a frame layer of sound plus 88 additional layers that played in the gallery. Each layer corresponded to a specific tile.”

They collaborated remotely, working through themes as Brown sent new images and Shockley experimented with different sound families, recording auctioneers, a fragment from Schubert, overtone singing and the noise of “a strange hand-cranked ‘wheezing’ toy I had found in a discount shop.”

During the exhibition, they gave each tile a cheap price and removed a corresponding layer of sound whenever a painting sold. “The more commercially successful it was, the more it would cease to exist,” Brown said.

Following the success of “Selling the Sound of My Voice,” the pair looked for another chance to collaborate. When one of them saw the VCCA’s call for submissions to The Commission 2015, they decided to give it a shot.

“I did some reading about the site for the project (originally designated as Free Union),” Shockley wrote. “I really liked the story of the town—originally named after a freed slave blacksmith. The site of the Free Union Church gave the town its second name and was constructed by four different congregations who pooled resources and all worshiped there.”

The artists swapped ideas on how to incorporate this historical background into an installation within the existing natural environment of The Commission.

Brown developed 8’x 4′ modular panels to organize the outdoor space like a maze that visitors could walk through. Riffing on notions of blacksmithing, he conceived of wooden frames charred black in the Shou-sugi-ban style, a Japanese art of burning timber, with colorful textile overlays. For these prints, he manipulated images from The Batsford Colour Book of Roses, which he called “this random book I found printed in this amazing way where color is a little off,” and combined them with 19th century etchings of alchemical processes to reference human manipulations of landscape as well as the transformational passage of time.

Shockley worked with natural sounds from the region including recordings of native birds, frogs and insects, as well as water and wind, and composed additional material to fit the modules. “For these,” he wrote, “I’ve taken several 18th- or early 19th century shape note hymns (ones likely to have been performed at the founding of Free Union), and created new works by applying various reductive processes to the original materials.”

In the final exhibition, Shockley’s sounds emanated from small wireless speakers hidden within the walls that Brown built.

As for the show’s intriguing, if unwieldy, title, Shockley explained that the first half  “references the tradition of still life painting, where titles are often formed of simple lists of the objects depicted,” though in this case, Brown said, the items are not actually in the show itself.

“On the Viability and Transience of a Free and Perfect Union” is less conceptual. It not only references Free Union’s historical beginnings but the nature of art, The Commission and the pair’s collaboration itself. As Brown put it, “we only come together for this one transient moment, and we try to make it viable.”