How long is now?

Sep 27, 2006 at 12:00 am

In discussing the physics of space and time, University of Michigan game master Fred Goodman once quipped: "A thing is really nothing more than an extremely long event." Along the same lines, an artwork is a thing that's a record of an event, an object that results from the process of its making. This is apparent in Douglas Semivan's art, the free-flowing gestures of which, while seemingly spontaneous and natural, are the product of years of practice and intense deliberation.

Madonna University has mounted a show of Semivan's recent work on paper done during his winter 2005 sabbatical, augmented by a few pieces dating back a decade to when the series was started. Followers of Semivan's work, which has been too little exhibited locally in recent years (though the Detroit Institute of Arts has bought a couple of pieces in the meantime), won't find anything groundbreaking here. It's the flawlessly executed, suave stuff you've come to expect, only more so.

The new work is fairly large — about 5 feet high by 3 feet wide — done in graphite, acrylic and India ink. There's room enough for Semivan to stretch out and use materials that allow for a variety of surface effects in a palette that's tightly controlled and skews to the cool side. The established Semivan iconography is present: twisting washes of black and blue, which alternately evoke wind and water, and the triangular shapes of sails, some of which puff out like spinnakers in a good breeze.

Semivan's method is a balancing act of what he refers to as "sequence" and "consequence" — what gets put where, when and to what effect. He sometimes works on pieces for months, hovering over them brush in hand without making a mark. Luckily, he simultaneously maintains a series called "the Crazy Drawings" where he lets his freak flag fly. Some of these are on display at Madonna, installed in glass cases like specimens in a natural history museum. They offer insight into Semivan's decision-making process.

"The Crazy Drawings" are executed à la surrealist automatic drawing — by simply letting go and seeing what happens. An often-used technique is to draw with both hands in mirror images, rolling out squiggles and other gestures across the page. There's even a smudge or two. The drawings are done on sheer Japanese printing paper and some interesting effects are achieved by drawing on one side of the sheet, flipping it over and using the other side to respond to what shows through. Ideas that make the cut show up in the larger pieces.

A master printmaker who studied in Japan, Semivan has always brought a Zen-like quality of yin and yang to his work. This show is no exception. Its title, How Long is a Moment? is a kind of Zen koan. It refers to the expanded notion of time Semivan has adopted as he has gotten less concerned with things like fortune and fame and simply concentrated on his work. It also refers to the 10-year span the show covers, and is a gibe on how long it's been since Semivan's last public exhibit.

How long a moment is depends on your perspective. When it comes to waiting for this show to happen, the answer is "too long." When it comes to looking at what's in it, it doesn't seem like it could ever be long enough.


Douglas Semivan: How Long is a Moment? runs through Oct. 14, at Madonna University's Exhibit Gallery, 36600 Schoolcraft Road, Livonia.

Vince Carducci writes about arts and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]