We are all in this together
Eric R. Dallimore
The black void of space is bigger than we can fathom. The infinite realms of possibilities within this void are more than our minds can imagine. Across this expansive, empty mass, time and matter behave in ways that baffle the most brilliant physicists. In Nothing is Yours to Keep, Travis Hetman offers us a glimpse into a beautiful, unifying theory that all of that floating star matter is actually us, that the time we inhabit now is not separate from the time that our grandparents and ancestors lived in. You and I are not separate; the computer screen you are reading this on is also you and is the acrylic paint and the doorknob across the room.
In his major installation, Dark Matter Gathering, an assemblage of over 300 found black and white photographs Travis has offered a seemingly infinite universe that reads like an American folklore meets the Twilight Zone. These appropriated antique photographs in one way feel like your family’s long lost photo album, or when seen in another way they appear to be an alternate universe that operates parallel to our own. In each photograph, tiny little universes appear, suggesting that the thin veil between our universe and other universes is everywhere around us. Where this dark matter appears, the laws of our known world fade way, causing the images to rearrange in surprising fashion. Through the careful and meticulous placement of each of his tiny dark matter clusters, group photographs and landscapes become a stage where nothing is separate, yet an infinite realm of possibilities exist. In a brilliant stroke of poetry, Travis has installed this massive collection of photographs to begin as nothing and end in a pile of disassembling nothingness on the gallery floor. Travis is a researched artist who is demonstrating the theory of an expanding universe that will eventually collapse on itself, both literally and figuratively.
Throughout the exhibition Travis uses the gallery space itself as a demonstration of his thesis: that we are all one and the tiny particles that unify us are all around us. The archway becomes another portal into another universe, dissected by a line that stops at a specific point, like a watermark after a flood, covering portraits of long lost strangers halfway to three quarters in pure dark abyss. This watermark of a galactic void is beautifully echoed on a pillar inside of the main gallery space. (I can’t help but be amazed at the haunting familiarity of this watermark to the one I experienced in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina). A rip in the ceiling has playfully been turned into another cosmic gap, with a ladder falling from the ceiling that is just out of your reach, suggesting that a portal to another universe is within our vision, but just beyond our grasp.
Another theme that has been present in Travis’s work is the baseball player from a bygone era. Travis uses these players like the players of the game of life itself. Being a man from the Midwest, these simple American icons speak directly to Travis’s upbringing while simultaneously reflecting his understanding that all of this life, as serious and as beautiful as it all is, is in essence one big game in which we are the players on a cosmogonic stage.
In a series of hyper realistic graphite and acrylic drawings Travis playfully uses phrases taken from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and poses them with images of weapons and marble like portraits of famous stoics and philosophers. When these three elements are combined they force you to realize that even the most powerful and brilliant of philosophers and philosophies are nothing more than an inflated ego. The opus of this powerful notion is in the three largest pieces in this show: Just Add Water, Beyond Good and Evil to the West, and Beyond Good and Evil to the East. This series could be seen as individual pieces or as a triptych which serve to examine the petri dish of thought, were both the absurd and the highest intellect came from, expanding to the farthest borders of where the human mind can reach, a place of both danger and caution as exemplified by the two sharks swimming menacingly along its borders that break down into the dark, galactic matter present in all of the other works across the show.
Nothing is Yours to Keep is a remarkable reminder to all of us to rethink our place in the universe, to rethink time, matter, and reality itself. Travis Hetman’s body of work is meticulously crafted, immensely intelligent, yet very approachable. Every one of his pieces in this show can and must be viewed in multiple ways. Be it with humor, wonderment, skeptical curiosity, or pure child-like imagination; come to this exhibition with an open mind to look at our world in the reflection of an infinite and vast multiverse full of possibilities, truths, and facades.
It Does Not Matter
Eric Gustaf Nord
I imagine that, given the task of expressing the enormity of the universe as well as the impermanence of human life, many artists would either suffer from grandiose delusions in a foolish attempt to exact the infinite on a monumental scale, or end up miring themselves in a morose sentimentality of loss and regret. Not so with Travis Hetman. His smart, succinct exhibition, “Nothing is Yours to Keep,” tackles these subjects with subtle grace, impeccable craft, and a sharp-tongued wit.
Hetman is an immensely talented draftsman, possessing not only a dexterous skill to rival the very best of illustrators, but also an investigative mind that grapples with deep philosophical concerns, elevating his accomplished work to the realm of first class, fine art. Instead of falling prey to predictable artistic pitfalls, as previously mentioned, Hetman manages to articulate the pervasiveness of space and the transience of existence in a series of works so delicate and precise that I am compelled to invoke the age-old question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
Some would argue that contemplating such a rhetorical, theoretical, or quasi-theological question is a colossal waste of time. In fact, our modern society has appropriated that very question from centuries past, and reintroduced it into our contemporary lexicon, for the express purpose of criticizing and condemning the impracticality of such lines of thought. However, those who would do so, completely miss the point, so to speak. So, what is my point?
The purpose of that seemingly ridiculous question is not to extract some methodical numeration or calculated guess. The answer is of no consequence. Instead, like Hetman’s work, it is a vehicle of perceptual transformation, positioning us between the ubiquitous and the elusive, between the mundane and the sublime. Hetman’s altered photographs allow us to capture a glimpse of what lies outside our limited vision and beyond our determinate life span. Like the very best poetry, his art can open our minds to the illimitable expanse which lies between individually articulated words, or allow us to feel the potent silence which underscores all existence.
At Hetman’s opening reception, a few people asked me to explain the connection between the three distinct sections of the exhibition: the “Dark Matter Gathering” installation, the “Baseball” images, and the “Philosophers” images. Following is my personal experience and understanding of each and how they interrelate.
In “Dark Matter Gathering,” the vintage photographs that Hetman has appropriated and altered, evoke in me a sense of nostalgia, and recall certain memories of my family. I feel a strong affinity with many of the images. Exploring all 300 of them, I remembered relatives who have passed, or candid moments from my childhood. However, I also enjoyed another, larger experience through Hetman’s thematic explorations, e.g. the calculated obliteration of faces, the clever unveiling of celestial curtains, the insertion of imposing, perspectival monoliths, all expertly integrated into each photograph in a wide variety of unique ways. Utilizing repetition, Hetman removes all personal sentiment, and imbues the installation with a humbling, yet comforting acknowledgement of our collective mortality. Through theme and variation upon variation, his images reminded me of the cyclical nature of our existence, from our celestial origin to the mysterious realm of our unavoidable fate.
The “Baseball” works also invoke nostalgia, incorporating both uniforms from the past, as well as the iconic shape of the team pennant. The theme of dark matter from the installation is repeated in the gloves or cleats of the players, while hands, arms, and torsos disappear within complex geometric mosaic medallions. The monolith reappears in two images as a reversed white void, punctuating a frozen moment of physical action with a startling shock of emptiness. The plywood pennants emblazoned with the deprecating phrase, “You’re never going to make it,” seem cynically comical, but belie their true intent. Taking his inspiration from a “lullaby” by the sumptuously guttural Tom Waits, Hetman is playfully juxtaposing the goal-driven mindset of competitive sports with the all-too-human condition of insatiability. We humans are never truly satisfied, and therefore, always in pursuit of something else, something more, cursed with the burden of never achieving absolute fulfillment.
Lastly, the “Philosophers” images address issues of human flaws and fallibility. Five small portraits of classic Greek philosophers are paired with five weapons of violence and five short phrases taken from Nietzsche, expressing what he believed was the primary failure of each of their respective philosophies. I am provoked to imagine the words of these great, though fallible, philosophers, being manipulated and turned into weapons, antithetical to their original intent. The central triptych of the exhibition explores the journey from natural law (the outward edges reintroduce the dark matter theme as a dark ocean from which fearsome sharks emerge) toward another jumbled geometric mosaic where the social relevance of stoicism and the socratic method are overshadowed by the cartoon antics of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Tom and Jerry. For me, this implies both the comical dysfunction of philosophy within the noise and clutter of contemporary society, as well as the underlying philosophies one is capable of gleaning from the unlikely origins of the cartoon storyboards of Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna Barbera.
Throughout Hetman’s exhibition the dark matter theme permeates his work, sometimes as the primary focus, and other times as subtle references of our universal commonality. As a whole, I feel the work addresses three activities that we, as humans, participate in, hoping to compensate for our lack of control over natural forces: the documentation of our lives, the involvement in simple games that provide us with definitive outcomes, and the construction of theoretical principals of behavior through which we hope to achieve desired results. Despite our attempts to mold our realities and stubbornly hold on to fleeting moments as though they were immutable absolutes, Hetman skillfully reminds those who view his artwork that, in the end, it does not matter, and “Nothing is Yours to Keep.”