What do ancient potsherds and pygmy dinosaurs have in common with mass graves and homegrown lichen?
The answer lies in Stratigraphy, one of the latest art exhibits on display at Grand Forks’ Gallery 2. These nine works by city artist Leora Gesser show her exploration of a burning question that has animated her curiosity since she was a little girl:
“What is it that happens between a human and the ground they’re standing on that creates a synergy?”
Whatever that is, it’s distinctly layered. Then again, it’s not enough to observe that the exhibit features so many cross-sections of earth: You really have to see it for yourself.
Gesser’s artwork is inspired by her lived connection with the land under her feet. From there, Gesser said she draws out “things from each place embedded in its history; its geography; or its geology.” Once a landscape imprints on her, she takes it apart “the way you would a piece of writing.” Every place sits atop a unique buildup of time. Whether these deposits are laid in rock formations (fossils tend to recur in her paintings’ lower strata) or ancient civilizations is entirely place-specific, which is why she meticulously researches everything she paints.
The displayed paintings are labelled “Stratigraphy 1” through 9, each of which is reproduced in black-and-white print, for a total of 18 works. If the numbering sounds clinical, it’s because Gesser wanted to highlight the experiences rooted in each place rather than their places on a map.
“It’s not all that important to me that the viewer knows the locations,” she said.
One canvas shows a subarctic “dinosaur highway” once trafficked by tiny ancient lizards. Another shows a seam of Mediterranean potsherds strewn beneath folding hills. The artist doesn’t shy away from the more grisly artifacts buried throughout Central Europe, where the Holocaust swallowed the bones of 6.5 million murdered jews. There’s nothing particularly graphic where the skeletons appear. They’re simply a part of that place.
Throughout all of her works runs a vein of Old Man’s Beard, a green moss that grows abundantly in forests around Grand Forks. The fibrous texture bears out the artist’s words that, for Gesser, painting is not just tactile, but so intimate that it’s “visceral.”
To view her work is to feel a part of it, leaving us to ask what it is beneath our own feet that makes us comfortable — or uncomfortable — where we stand.
Go see Stratigraphy for yourself. If you can’t make it in to the exhibit, Gallery 2 is preparing to launch an online tour starting March. 6.