GLOUCESTER — Collaboration rarely turns out the way you expect it. In fact, that's sometimes the point. Artists collaborate in order to challenge each other, to come up with something bigger or different than they ever could have devised on their own.
The mother-daughter artist team of Sarah Hollis Perry and Rachel Perry Welty take collaboration as one of their themes for their show “water, water” at the Cape Ann Museum.
It’s a notable event, for a couple of reasons. Welty, who had a solo show at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park last year that went on tour, has a burgeoning career. Although she no doubt has other hands helping, hers is usually the only name on the marquee. Perry’s reputation is more local. But these two have quietly worked together since both attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2000. Both artists live and work on Cape Ann.
This is the Cape Ann Museum’s first foray into contemporary programming, an obvious move as contemporary art blooms in institutions throughout the region. Regular museum visitors who stop in to see Marsden Hartley’s spare, elegiac depictions of Dogtown, or take in the Fitz Henry Lane maritime paintings in the collection, will be surprised to find “water, water” just as they come in. There’s a large video projection, a conceptual sculpture, and a variety of smaller works that bring the museum into the 21st century.
Strangely, the contemporary works fit right in. Well, some of them do. Welty and Perry have created a conceptual installation, much of it built around the Gloucester landscape — specifically, Lighthouse Beach in Annisquam. It’s rocky, like Hartley’s Dogtown paintings, and watery, like Lane’s maritime renderings. Eighty Gloucester residents appear in the main video.
The strongest work in the show, another video called “Collaboration,” doesn’t tie in so readily. It’s a haiku of a piece, mysterious and succinct, featuring two hands undertaking a variety of tasks: They untie a knotted bag, pour water into a glass; wash each other, and more. But the right hand literally does not know what the left is doing — one is Perry’s, the other Welty’s. The video conveys the awkwardness of collaborating, the connections missed that for a solo artist are intuitive and fluid.
The artists attempt to draw a link between human partnership and the connection between land and sea. The idea suggests agency that water and earth don’t have. “Drawing a Line With the Tide,” the centerpiece video in “water, water,” shows a looping line of people along the waterline at Lighthouse Beach, sitting in low beach chairs. As the tide rises, they stand, move their chairs back, and sit again. They can’t draw a line in the sand, because the water keeps washing it away.
A nearby collage on a succession of photographic digital prints, “Anticipating the Tide,” is clearly a companion piece. It depicts the same beach, this time with stickers affixed along the waterline — a Welty trademark. Her line in the sand is a string of happy faces and supermarket decals. And when it’s washed to sea, there will be that much more trash in the water.
“Collaboration” and “Drawing a Line With the Tide” share a meditation on the efficacy of will power. Will can help you push through a bumbling partnership to one that works smoothly, but it cannot hold back the tide. And for all the clever ideas and bungled efforts to move an environmentally friendly agenda forward, the tide is still rising.
The artists have collected enough driftwood to build a healthy beach bonfire and covered it all in gleaming silver plumber’s tape to make the sculpture “Wrapped Sticks,” turning beach flotsam into a museum piece. It’s a striking image, jagged and throwaway, shiny as polished silver. The same effort went into “Drift Log,” a handsome photo image of a burly log similarly clad, set out on rugged rocks that might be a jetty.
These raise yet another theme of this exhibit — a query into what is precious. A small untitled piece tucked into a corner comprises a chunk of found Styrofoam and a similarly sized block of granite. It takes a moment to distinguish which is which, because the Styrofoam is so scuffed and soiled it looks like a rock.
One by one, the works in this show engage and often charm, but with all these themes, “water, water” strays this way and that when it should cohere. One startling last photograph brings us back to the theme of collaboration — and the relationship between a parent and a child — and also works as a metaphor for this at times captivating, at times frustrating exhibit. In “Double self-portrait,” the two artists face each other and each reaches out to cover the other’s face with her hands. They cannot truly see each other. We cannot truly see them. Their art should show us the way. Occasionally, it does, quite poignantly. But the exhibition as a whole does not.