Lehman College Art Gallery
STICKS AND STONES Sept. 6, 2011 – Jan. 6, 2012
Barbara Andrus, Barbara Cooper, Cui Fei, Tracy Heneberger, Michael Shaughnessy, Raquel Rabinovich, and Jim Toia
Curated by Susan Hoeltzel
Sticks and Stones features a group of seven artists who employ natural materials in their work — straw, mud, stones, mushroom spores, grape tendrils, octopi — in a largely unmediated state. Their process, imagery, and allusions are also largely drawn from nature. On entering the gallery one is aware of not only the visual impact of the work but also the fragrances — of forests and harvested hay. In an age of the digital and the virtual, these artists have found sources that are decidedly tactile. Many of the materials are temporal and go through a process of recycling and renewal with each new installation. All of the works speak to a strong connection to nature. In some environmental ecology is a definite element. In others that connection is as broad as a long view of human history. In all of the work, there is the seduction of the materials themselves.
Michael Shaughnessy’s monumental, site-specific installation Confluence and Swirl draws its imagery specifically from the Bronx topography – the convergence points of three of its rivers— the East River, the Harlem River, and the Bronx River and reflects the his interest in the ecology of rivers. Created from hay that has been bound into components with twine and joined together with wooden skewers, the expansive composition, 20’ high and 34’ wide, covers the gallery wall and dwarfs the viewer. Circular patterns flow across the surface, suggesting the powerful motion of the water in these waterways. Shaughnessy recycles, replenishes, and reconfigures the materials in each new installation. The hues vary from greenish to golden based on the age of the hay, with the composition representing more than one year’s growing cycle.
Another large-scale, site-specific installation, Forest Extract: Walking Between Swans Island and Sears Island, was created by Barbara Andrus in the gallery over the summer months. The work is architectural in scale and its spiraling towers fit neatly under the angles of the gallery’s Breuer ceiling. Made from trees branches and trunks — apple, holly, cherry, mountain ash, basked willow, tiger maple – that are woven and tied with jute, it is a bower-like structure that is meant to be entered. Its dimensions are, in part, dictated by the human figure. The path inside unfolds like a seashell with a counterclockwise movement that draws the viewer into narrowing chambers. From the exterior the dense layering of limbs creates a drawing in space; and their surfaces – with bark and without – offer a range tones from the dark gray of tiger maple to the stark contrast of white birch and the stripped beige pulp of bare wood. Andrus’ materials are also recycled and repurposed in each new installation reflecting an economy of resources and the implication of environmental sustainability.
Raquel Rabinovich’s River Library, an ongoing series of over a hundred drawings, is made with sediments from rivers around the world — the Hudson, the Ganges, the Orinoco, the Mekong, the Rio Grande, the Arno. Mud and the accretions of minerals and the debris of plants and animals, living and dead, record time and mark history – of the earth and of human presence. Rabinovich thinks of these drawing as pages of a book and the earth on the page surfaces as a text marking this record. To create the drawings she collects dried river sediment in her travels, and from friends — and others who know about her project and send her parcels. In her studio Rabinovich submerges handmade paper in a mixture of mud, water and glue, building layers of earth in a process that recalls the geologic process. The papers are removed, dried, and immersed again. Sometimes additional mud is daubed on to the surface of the paper. It is a slow, methodical ritual that anchors the work to a particular time and place.
Manunscript of Nature V, Cui Fei’s wall installation, also alludes to language and the written word. Drawing on concepts of nature from her Chinese heritage and reconciling those with Western ideas, she sees nature as a source of order, permanence, and healing that transcends culture and the chaotic changes of history. Cui Fei explores the relationship of nature and culture in works that are at once enigmatic yet offer universal elements that seem intuitive and apparent. Her work is created with grape vine tendrils that have been pinned to the gallery wall, producing lines and shadows that offer the visual equivalent of a calligraphic brushstroke. Their placement suggests a traditional Chinese text with the layout on the wall reading from right to left with the title, the body of the composition, the signature and the date.
Built layer upon layer, Barbara Cooper’s sculptures seem to manifest the natural growth process itself. Her primary material is wood veneer and recycling is an important subtext of her work as well – Cooper constructs her sculptures from scraps that have been discarded by Chicago furniture factories and milling plants. In the two works in this exhibition, Joint and Link (both 2011), the shingle-like veneers are combined with “found” cottonwood burls. The complex carving of the latter is shaped by stresses in the tree’s environment – insects, injury, virus or fungus – rather than intervention by the artist. In these works Cooper’s process explores the dichotomy of “found” object vs. constructed and juxtaposes materials in their natural state with materials that are processed, man-made, and industrial. In these works the two concepts seem to flow together into an organic whole that appears to have evolved on its own.
Tracy Heneberger approaches nature as a formalist – collecting, arranging, and ordering nature. His choice of materials is broad – plants, minerals, and animals – and sometimes less conventional. In Moon, 2006, layer upon layer of sardines – 1155 of them in all – are arranged symmetrically as a tondo. Sealed with resin, shellac and epoxy, the fish provide an intricate patterning and their glass-like surface reflects the light and shimmers like the moon. In a recent work, Bouffant, 2011, an arrangement of pomegranates positioned on top of a thick grapevine suggests the elaborate coiffures of Bahia in Brazil where Heneberger spent nine years of his childhood.
Jim Toia collaborates with nature to make drawings generated by the growth of mushroom spores. On first viewing, the drawings are often mistaken for photographs. The image is, in fact, the result of trillions of spores on the paper and the shapes and veil-like patterns they form are the culmination of a process that is part chance, natural process, and aesthetic intervention. Toia begins by hunting mushrooms in the wild and has traveled the world, collecting on four continents. He places mushroom caps on a paper when they are almost ready to drop their spores. They are covered and allowed to develop. He uses a paper with a slight tooth that catches and helps hold the spores. Toia layers different species and creates air currents to manipulate the resulting image, though this phase is essentially done “in the dark” – the spores are not visible until a large number have dropped. When the composition is complete, the spores are sealed in a small space created by the frame. Toia’s mushroom drawings are a part of a body of work that also includes spider web captures, jellyfish drawings and ant colony casts.