SALEM — Far be it from me to assign purpose to art. It’s the rarest of things, in this era of radical utility — there’s an app for that! — to have something that isn’t made, particularly, for anything. Art, when it works, shifts with what its viewer brings to it. The closest it should ever come to useful is in what it provides; depending on the circumstance, the same piece can offer solace or provocation, joy or despair. An artwork that seeks to do something specific closes itself off from possibility. It threatens its own status as art.
So when the Peabody Essex Museum opened a gallery last year dedicated to “contemplation and meditation,” it gave me pause. PEM is unconventional, often in the best way. With the recent reinstallation of its American collections, it became the first museum in the country to integrate Native American and Colonial cultures, grappling permanently with what “American” means.
Considering that hard work, a purpose-built, in-house mental health retreat doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Even so, it felt wrong to arrive in “Remembrance,” Zachari Logan’s gorgeous, darkly delicate exhibition, which currently occupies the space, with expectations already set.
Logan, whose virtuosity with oil stick and pastel on paper has few peers, makes extravagantly lush, verdant images of blooming vitality laced with an undertone of dread. That duality is something you should have the chance to come to on your own; you may not, and that’s fine, too. There’s no right way to see it. Your experience belongs to you, and you alone.
So, for Logan’s work to have purpose prescribed to it is inevitably limiting. The onus, now, is on you to find the meditative and/or contemplative in what’s in front of you. And what if you don’t? Are you doing it wrong? The thought shouldn’t enter your mind, let alone lead your thinking. And that’s a problem.
Logan’s pictures have an unsettling immediacy. “Dead Flowers,” 2021-22, is a broad sheet of black paper draped loose on the wall and curling to the floor. The hanging is part of the work; unbound, it feels in process, incomplete. Eerily precise drawings of flowers glow on its dark surface, vividly hyperreal. Look closely, and you’ll see the picture collapsing in on itself — rot and decay knit into its vibrant fabric; life entangled with death, no beginning or end.
Logan’s work is self-consciously a gentle form of memento mori, a medieval funerary motif — it translates to “remember that you will die” — that’s evolved over centuries to maintain its purity of purpose. It’s not necessarily bleak. It simply embodies the great inevitability of all life: that someday it ends, and there is beauty, even solace, in the churn of the natural order of things. The most vibrant living iteration is Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which is the furthest thing from morbid you can imagine; it replaces mourning with a celebration of lives lived.
Logan pays his respects to convention and adds his own flourish. “Composition No. 3,” 2016, with a bolt of dark fabric wreathed in flowers, suggests a funereal shroud. “Remembrance” is at its best when it maintains its mystery and leaves itself open to broad reading. “Bruising No. 1,” 2020, feels playful, almost giddy, with wildflowers uprooted and whipped off the page by the breeze (Logan has drawn floral silhouettes right onto the gallery wall at the point of departure). “The Disappearing Sky No. 1,” 2020, its companion, is a view of the same torrent seen from flat on your back, flowers winging by beneath pale patches of cloud crowded by dark sky.
Together and alone, the implied subject of both works is time — how nothing is static, all is fleeting, with beauty and upheaval entwined. Logan’s skill is abundant enough that it could be distracting in a how-on-earth way, something he knows well enough to not rely on. The best pieces here keep you off balance, searching for elusive meaning far more transcendent than tracks on a page. In “Seeding No. 2,” 2022, floral vines creep near the shoreline of black water, colors vivid against the darkness. A hand gropes through the undergrowth, its fingertip buried in the soft, wet ground. The title suggests new growth, but the tone is more ominous than sunny. The tension between is what gives the piece life.
“Remembrance” strays from its ambiguity with a grid of 49 little flower sketches in bright fuchsia. Logan made them as tribute to the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where 49 people were killed in the deadliest attack on LGBTQ+ people in American history. The drawings are starkly gorgeous, each a bright burst of beauty and grief. But amid a field of works so poetically oblique, I couldn’t help but wonder if a piece so literal was out of place here. Another worry came in a side gallery where two ghostly drawings — abandoning his love of color, Logan made these pieces entirely in shades of gray — were hung next to a pair of chairs installed for the express purpose of silent meditation.
The pieces themselves are a triumph; one, an urn holding drooping floral fronds, and the other, a shimmering, silvery silhouette of a wreath enveloped in blackness, show the artist’s mastery of a new palette. They’re like photo negatives of the vibrant pieces, a shadow world through the looking glass.
The forms are suggestive: Urns, traditionally, hold human remains; a wreath is a funerary offering going back centuries. But really, is it up to the museum to tell you what these works should be for? The current cultural landscape is fraught with so much trauma, I don’t think it’s wrong to take viewers by the hand now and then. At the Museum of Fine Arts, “Philip Guston Now,” a much angsted-over exhibition that includes the artist’s gutsy take on the KKK, includes trigger warnings to keep those new to Guston from being caught unaware.
Being taken by the hand is not the same as being led by the nose. Art can offer solace and contemplation for those who seek it. But boxing up any art for specific function undermines the artist and the viewer both. Open the door. We can find our own way. Finding it, in fact, is the point.
ZACHARI LOGAN: REMEMBRANCE
Through May 2023. Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org