The gritty, industrial setting of Asheville’s Pump Gallery in the River Arts District is the perfect match for “Flush,” the current exhibition of screen-printed ceramic wall pieces by Melissa Terrezza. The artist is no stranger to these walls. As a well-established member of the Phil Mechanic Studios, which houses Pump, she has had plenty of time to absorb the gallery’s weathered and rugged style. It’s no wonder her art is so comfortable in the space.
If you’re not familiar with the Phil Mechanic Studios, it’s a 1928 produce warehouse that now swarms with artists, craftspeople, two galleries and a biodiesel production facility. As you enter through a loading bay and up a narrow wooden access ramp, you are emptied into a wide, con-crete-floored corridor. That unlikely space is the Pump Gallery. There’s something about the area that glows. It makes the art in it appear completely motionless, as if the whole gallery has paused for the moment. Though Pump affords this intimate opportunity for viewing, Terrezza’s work, by contrast, is confrontational and packs heat.
Take for example, “Sluice,” “Peak” and “Gush,” which directly address environmental catastrophe. (Terrezza has a knack for picking one-word titles that effectively describe the situation and make the viewer think about multiple meanings of the word.) A web of thick black circles in each piece clearly allude to crude oil floating on water. In “Gush,” a reddish tinge applied to the oily bubbles reminds you even more of aerial photographs of massive red streaks of oil from the 2010 Gulf calamity. And what lies in the background? A black cloud extending from an offshore oil rig, with a single pelican, that familiar icon of southern ports and ocean life, looking on. Terrezza readjusts these coastal images to include the sludge and slime of our society’s fuel dependency, which took us to drilling in the oceans in the first place. The artist explores similar motifs from technology, commerce and ecological mishaps. Heads rest on top of radio towers, pistols shoot flowers, and a subway car travels beneath honeybees at work.
In addition to images from science and technology, Terrezza include Native Americans. These pieces help bridge the gap between socio-environmental and political ethics within the works, while also cementing her own blood connection. The people who originally lived on the land, she seems to say, saw themselves as its guardians; contemporary Americans see our place in the natural world as privileged. In “Charge” and “Redden,” a Native American chief, in full feathered headdress, with papers in hand (are they deeds? or maybe treaties?), speaks to an audience of white, congressional faces. Some of them appear perplexed, others bored, and one or two may even be tickled. Charge! Well, sort of. The days of banding together and charging the opponent are long past. Now “Charge” seems to imply filing requests, making calls and arranging meetings with the “enemy.”
Terrezza is a true multimedia artist, who combines multiple methods and mediums. She begins with 12- to 24-inch rectangular ceramic tiles, which she makes in her downstairs studio. These serve as the physical base for her work and her personal connection with the earth. After securing them to wooden planks for hanging, she fills them with images that she screen prints, paints and draws directly onto the surface. To finish them, she applies layers of glaze for a smooth, liquid surface.
Note that Terrezza practices the environmentalism she preaches. She creates her screen-printed images with light sensitive materials that develop in the sun, rather than using chemicals, waxes, glues and electricity.
Terrezza’s trademark are her clay dollar-bill fortune cookies. She prints the image of a dollar bill with President Washington’s green grimace onto a clay strip and folds in it into the shape of a fortune cookie. They rest in piles on a pedestal against one of the gallery walls and inside a bird cage hanging in the corner. The cage’s door is open (maybe the bird’s have all flown onto the wall pieces), and inside a large nest lies on top of the fortune cookies. The fortunes inside these cookies aren’t the “You will find friendship in someone new” predictions you’re used to, but real truths about humanity and earth from the likes of Einstein, Ralph Nadar and Buckminster Fuller. Some of these paper fortunes are visible, others are stuck inside, calling for you to actually break the cookie. Terrezza seems to be saying that these messages are more important than the artistic artifact.
Apart from its environmental-political messages, Terrezza’s work has great artistic clarity. Everything about this show is of the highest quality. The craftsmanship is immaculate and the pieces are just plain beautiful. Gallery goers obviously agree, from the many small red “sold” dots be-side the titles of each piece. Whether it’s Terrezza’s message or her medium, collectors are buying.
“Flush” is on view until Sunday, July 30 at the Pump Gallery in The Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St. Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 828.254.2166
Kyle Sherard is a printmaker and writer, and recent graduate from UNC Asheville.