Curator Shana Dumont Garr and I discussed the new Kingston exhibition How to Feel Real at its First Friday opening, as flakes of machine-made snow swirled through the air outside the gallery doors. This ambitious gathering of four very different artists’ projects presents a fascinating mix of images and concepts that I wanted to explore with her in a series of questions. Here’s a synopsis of some of our conversation:
L: The work in the show as a whole seems to ask the question, “what are our current ideas about what is Natural, and how do some of the specific pieces in the exhibition embody these concepts?” Do we still equate the “Natural” with the “Real”?
S: As you alluded in your opening, each artist’s work offers different answers to the first question of current concepts about what is natural. That very range of viewpoints may bring us closer to an interesting answer. But I think the art has in common the theme of solace, whether directed toward ourselves or toward the natural world. For example, one of Kellie Bornhoft’s pieces is a real tree with a sound-based element seeming to emanate from it, referring to the demise of one of its own in the form of a faintly buzzing chainsaw. This work interrogates whether our empathy toward nature has any utility, and like much of her work, it highlights problems and inconsistencies in our relationship with the natural world.
I’m fascinated by how, recently, basic things have emerged as artisanal or prescriptive. I mean, really simple stuff. It is now considered eventful or at least healing to touch dirt or to walk barefoot on the ground. When I noted related terms such as “earthing” and “grounding” on social media, it stunned me, but, I have to admit, lately I feel smug and “healthy” whenever I repot a houseplant.
Speaking of prescriptive framing for the earth, what do we need to heal? A cause of sickness (both mental and physical) is, to answer your second question, the ever-expanding gap between “natural” and “real.” The other day, I described my experience at another exhibition as visceral because of how much of the art gave me sensation that I was floating as I viewed it. The person with whom I corresponded said, “I think that sounds more meditative.” I agreed, thinking to myself, “Oh no-more evidence that you live in your head.” But I’m not unique. The pull of the virtual is strong and ever-increasing.
L: Our human sensorial and perceptive frameworks are changing at a dizzying rate. How do artists reflect these changes in the way we relate to our experience? Do you think that our immersion in the digital world has changed our conception and experience of the present moment?
S: Precisely, yes. Our immersion in the digital has taken place so rapidly that we can feel the change, and feel unmoored by the shift. It’s the source of research and mirth, and an example of those two impulses is brought together in Modern Romance: An Investigation, a book that registers the current reality that people meet online and court one another via text messages. It is coauthored by the comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist, Eric Klinenberg. I’ve nearly twisted my ankle, hazarding that extra few seconds when I shouldn’t, so that I may find the exact ‘right’ emoji to respond to a text. The irony is that emoji, as pictograms, were purposely created to have unspecific meanings. But the attention we seek from others-that red number meaning someone responded to what we put out there-there is a point are we attached to the process of connecting over the people with whom we connect, and I want us to acknowledge uncomfortable truths such as that.
L: Could you talk about some of the correspondences of color, material, texture and gesture that appear throughout the installation of this show? How do these relationships underscore the theme of the exhibition?
S: Initially, I focused on compiling works that dealt with similar concerns that preoccupy me. In that sense, this exhibition is autobiographical. Of secondary concern to me was how different they appear-perhaps, at times, even provocatively individual. As I made final selections, finding harmony in colors and textures informed my choices, and my affinity for pastels likely had a hand in the decisions.
As for how artists reflect these changes in our sensorial and perceptive frameworks, I can’t speak for artists directly, but I’d venture to say that it is a challenge to differentiate between when aesthetic experiences entertain or share information/educate, and moreover, anticipating an audience’s willingness to take in the latter without the former. Also, the work that creates and supports the videos and websites we take in is seamless and invisible. That likely effects our prioritization of process over other concerns regarding visual art.
I arranged the objects so they seemed to be conversing with each other. Kellie’s flowers, altered so their centers flatten into pixels, asymmetrical with plastic tubing and lumps of tar, make Hilary’s images of flowers seem sweet and pure by contrast, although on their own, they point out the humble qualities of cultivated plant life in the small yards of working class neighborhoods just north of Boston.
L: Touching as a way of knowing seems to be a concern of the artists in the show. The haptic relationship to the visual is something that has always greatly interested me. Eva Hayward has a wonderful term for this; she calls it “fingeryeyes.” Can you comment on this aspect of the work in the exhibition?
S: Your interest in touch is evident in your sculptures, which integrate so many textures into cohesive forms that stubbornly retain personalities as individual as people. They have a magnetic sensibility-one wants to touch them to fully know them. Recalling this makes me chuckle, as I remember you and your husband catching me moving one of your sculptures during the reception. Oops!
Stacey’s paintings put shivers of recognition up my spine. The dense, repetitive textures of impasto speak to the discipline of expression, of the work involved in making something come into being. I don’t interpret Stacey’s work as connecting directly to digital culture, but to the things we do that counterbalance screen time: the dirt, in this case, is the colored pigment that she arranges so expressively onto the canvas.
I consider the four artists’ work to be on a continuum, with Stacey’s works being more corporeal and immediate in how one may respond, and Kellie’s video and kinetic sculptures having a relatively higher proportion of social critique, with correspondingly fewer haptic references, and contributing to a self-awareness of how distant our thoughts may be from the space that we inhabit.