In Conversation: Mary Lang and Vaughn Sills on Farandnear

Climate change is hard to wrap one’s head around as an individual, since it affects both our future and our present day. How might we use the arts to cope? 

In the Main Gallery this month, Mary Lang’s show Farandnear presents a potent combination of grief and love. It’s both a stunning method of coping with the growing losses of climate change and a testament to how much beauty still surrounds us. Lang sees the “far and near” threat of climate catastrophe illustrated in physical places. It’s in her natural surroundings, both domesticated and wild. 

As the Emerging Arts Writer, I sat down for an interview with Lang and one of her Kingston peers, Vaughn Sills. Sills is a photographer whose work pairs well with Lang’s. Both artists explore how we are influenced by the land and how we influence it.

In the interview that follows, Sills and Lang explore everything from their personal philosophies of photography, to the nuts and bolts of how they frame a shot. 

Claire Ogden: ​​How do you decide what’s in the frame and what’s out of the frame? And how would you define your photographic eye?

Mary Lang: I think when you’ve been taking pictures for as long as I have, you kind of know what a picture looks like. You recognize something, and then it’s just a matter of putting a frame around it. 

And then I would say, with this recent body of work, the things I’m looking at or the way I’m looking at them, are a little bit different than the way I was looking at things before. Before, there was much more space and a kind of loneliness or groundlessness or emptiness. 

These pictures are much more crowded and textured and complex, which I actually think is just the result of getting better at describing that kind of thing. Because I’ve occasionally taken pictures like that, over the years, but they never felt good enough. Even the work-in-progress that I showed Vaughn a year ago, I got better at seeing what I was looking at since then.

Amory Park, Brookline, September, 2021.

Vaughn Sills: I was thinking about how you frame a picture, Mary, and that to me, that’s one of the key things that a photographer does: the choices that they make. And this set of images feels very casual in the framing, right? it’s like, oh, you included this amount of the dahlias or this amount of the little blue clover, and the houses. 

When I frame a picture I think I’m actually sometimes too orderly and too tidy in my framing. So when I look at your pictures, that is one of the things I notice and like about it.

I mean the other thing we do, besides [moving the camera right and left] is we…step forward, or we step backwards or we zoom, if you use a zoom lens. But how much to include seems to me a major decision.

ML: That’s so interesting, because I so seldom step forward, and I seldom step backwards.  You know, I just have had the 35 millimeter lens since I was 23. And that’s what I see.

VS: That’s where you are so that’s what you see.

ML: Right. So I don’t usually step forward or step backwards.

VS: I tend to see a scene, and walk into the field to get a lot closer to the thing. Because there’ll be too much around it, and I love what’s around it, but I decided there’s too much of it. So to figure out what to include, what not.

ML: Yeah. I mean you’re so good at figuring out where the edges [are, and] with creating this space that is so resonant and has the right amount of detail and the right amount of space, so I just assumed that that’s what you saw. 

VS: Thanks. I had a teacher once who said something that made a huge impression on me, which is: What a photographer does, it’s so different from what a painter does. We edit the world, we select and we edit. We (mostly) don’t decide, ‘oh I’ll put in a chair and a vase of flowers and have so and so sit there to do their portrait.’

Especially the kind of photography you’re doing, it’s about seeing the world and editing and selecting and choosing what to put in that picture.

ML: I would say that particularly with this body of work, the framing––because so much of what it is, is just kind of random––you know that the framing makes you say “Okay, she wanted me to notice something here.” So then, you just notice.

CO: How did you decide to pair these photographs with each other? What sort of decision making process went into that for you?

ML: Well, all along I was pretty sure that the one of the storm approaching, with the prayer flags flapping, I knew that one was going on that wall all by itself, because it just needed a wall all by itself.

VS: I liked that each piece had enough space around it. And I found myself walking back and forth across the room to look at one, and then another and then another. 

I thought it was really beautifully installed in that way, and I love the size of the images which I think is a factor in that space. The pictures felt bigger to me. Maybe it’s because they’re more close-up, and they are sort of exploding out of the frame. 

You know, you feel those flowers moving, going on beyond the frame, you feel the trees in front of the house going on beyond the edges of the picture, so maybe it’s something like that. I don’t know, but it’s very interesting.

CO: Can you say a little bit more about your new way of seeing things for this show? And where it might take you for your next body of work?

ML: You know when you have a show it’s like having a child, and you need to wait before you have another one. [laughs]

But I have been thinking a lot about this body of work, which is more complex. And this idea of looking through a veil or something close and something far is not the way I have organized space in my photographs in the past. 

Being interested in that way of seeing things and then taking more pictures like that actually sharpens your vision. I mean you know, for every picture that’s on the wall there’s probably 25 that aren’t. 

And then I think that I was really interested in this idea of things being veiled. It wasn’t until I showed work to another friend who is a gallery person who came up with the idea of farandnear. She said. “that’s the title”. 

CO: What were some of those ways that the “farandnear” title informed what went in and what stayed out from this body of work?

ML: Well, there was something about wanting things to not just be beautiful. 

As an example, farandnear was one of the first Trustees properties we went to right around this time last year. And then we went back in December or January right before there was snow on the ground.

And I took a bunch of really beautiful fall-color pictures of that beaver swamp, and then I took the one that’s in the Center Gallery of the tangle of tree branches. 

And the beautiful fall monochrome swamp just did not make the cut. 

My daughter is a journalist and there’s a saying in journalism that you have to kill your darlings. Like there’s things that you love, but they just don’t make it into the body of work. 

VS: Can you tell me more about grief and love and how you see that in the images? 

ML: I love the world, you know? As you do. It’s so beautiful. And at the same time, particularly things that are subject to climate change, I mean, the whole earth, we’re losing it. And I’ll be dead before the worst of it, but my children and my grandson will not be. And there’s so much grief in that. 

I think that being able to feel that and not turn away from it.

Even if you don’t wallow in it, it’s not there every time you sit down at the dinner table and make a little toast to grief, but you know it’s there. It’s there in the background, and I think it makes us more awake and aware and sensitive, so that when we’re wandering the earth we just feel more. 

And, it makes us take better pictures.

VS: So that may help answer my other question about how Buddhism influences you. And it seems to me that part of Buddhism is about being in the moment, right now, being really able to be in the present… but I’m wondering about your   grief about the earth. What’s happening to the earth, and what will happen is more about the future in a sense, right?

ML: Not all in the future. That’s what I say [in my artist statement]…I’ve lived in the same house for 38 1/2 years. I’ve never lived anywhere that long. 

Thirty years ago, the Charles River near my house reliably froze-–we have a little cove––it froze on December 20 and stayed frozen until February vacation, and you could go with the kids and skate there. Now, it is frozen for maybe four days of winter. So that’s right now. 

You can’t grow lupins in Massachusetts anymore, the winters aren’t cold enough, and they don’t come back. And so I see it in plants in the garden, too. 

It’s happening right now. It’s not happening in the future.

VS: And in your photographs, you feel it, you see it. 

ML: And photographs, they are about now. I mean photography is always about this moment, this 1/60th of a second of a moment. But it feels like the background is the grief, that it will not be this way.

VS: Yes, and I think a photograph as well as it’s a moment of now, it’s also about the past right? Because the moment after you take it, it’s gone.

CO: And in that way, I guess, they could potentially serve as an archive. Have you thought about your work as an archive? 

ML: Well, not really, no. I mean, I always think of archive stuff to be more dispassionate and scientific. But I don’t think of them as documents as much as descriptions.

VS: I don’t think they’re just descriptions. I think they’re more like a poem about a place. 

And I also want to say that, even though I know this far and near comes from a place and I know from your statement that it’s because it was far from where the person lived but also near enough, that they could get there. But I kept seeing far and near in the pictures. 

You had both far and near in the pictures and you brought these together into one perception.

And one of the things about photography is we have something frozen in time, and so we see this one thing. But also within that frame, we can create juxtapositions so that people can see more than one thing at a time. And so you’re juxtaposing the far and the near and I just love that you made it into one word. 

You made that thing a place that is both far and near in our experience.

ML: I feel very fortunate that the name came to stand for so many things in this body of work.

CO: It sounds like that name came sort of late in the process. How did you conceptualize and shape the concept for this body of work? 

ML: I had the visual organization [all along]. And I also had the idea that I wanted these beautiful, pristine landscapes from the Trustees (and there were many others that didn’t make the cut). So these were sort of beautiful landscapes that most people think ‘Oh, the landscape photographer.’

And then there were those woods in Waltham and the sort of little nothing places around the Charles River, and an abandoned nursery with the Queen Anne’s Lace.

And then my garden, I just sort of gave myself permission to put in some beautiful pictures of my garden.

Because I love my garden, although I am in mortal combat with a woodchuck right now, which happens just about every year. [laughs]

VS: I wondered if there are other photographers, any artists whose work you see as connected to what you’re doing now, this far and near concept.

ML: I see other artists whose work is about close observation of the landscape. Barbara Bosworth posts on Instagram every morning what the sky looks like, or a sunrise and then occasionally other little somewhat random, disorganized landscapes. 

Screenshot, @barbarabosworthstudio. Instagram.

A completely different scale is someone like Laura McPhee who just looks at the land and landscape, and looks at it long enough to understand…not exactly what it’s trying to say, but what is important. 

VS: I was thinking how different this work is than, say, Ansel Adams or the classic landscape, which is more at a distance and sort of formal and elegant and not as close. 

And the people you just named are all women…and it’s not totally true, but it’s one of the things in my work. But women are often gardeners. And there’s a willingness to look at the detail and the complexity and the messiness.

ML: And the intimacy. 

VS: The intimacy, exactly. That’s intriguing. And it may be even more contemporary too, that willingness to see the messiness. That kind of going through the woods, not that distant aloof kind of feel.

ML: I also love Robert Adams, a black and white photographer who managed to take pictures of ordinary nothing that you can’t take your eyes off of.

Robert Adams, Arriba, Colorado. 1966.

CO: Just one more question for you, Mary. How do you structure your photographic practice? Because I know you have certain parameters that you’ve stuck to for a long time, like you’re using the same frames and the same camera. How do you balance newness and those parameters that you stick to? 

ML: Well there’s definitely pictures I don’t take any more. You know, if I’m at the ocean and it’s a gorgeous sunset and the waves are coming in, I’ll take the picture, but I’m not going to show it. Been there, done that.

There’s a new place I’ve been wanting to photograph for about three years, which is the inside of the clover exit ramp from 128 to route nine going east. There’s just something about these wild, random yet beautiful [places]. 

And it may turn out to be nothing. But now I’ve talked about it out loud to more than one person, so I’m going to have to do it. 

Now that I’ve got the show up, the garden is in, the woodchuck is going to come or go. [laughs] Now I can go look at that exit ramp. 

Farandnear is on view now until June 26, 2022.

In the Studio: Elif Soyer

In the first installment of our “In the Studio” series, emerging writer Claire Ogden takes a tour of Elif Soyer’s studio and work. 

Elif Soyer’s studio practice shows a fine balance between art, life, and work, and the ways each can inform the other. Soyer’s studio is in a small garage right across from her Somerville home, sitting in its own world just steps away from her house. Soyer shifts in and out of her art practice, which is fitting given the simultaneous proximity and separation of her studio and home.  

Elif Soyer in her studio. Image courtesy of Claire Ogden.

Time away from art-making has been key to Soyer’s creative practice, ever since her MFA at Tufts. As with many artists she needed and wanted a day job to support her artistic endeavors.

In the beginning of the program, Soyer felt frustrated by the lack of clarity in exhibition selection, so she confronted the exhibitions staff about it. Soyer wanted to sit in on the jury selection, but the head of exhibitions wouldn’t allow it. Finally, they came to an agreement: “you want a job?” the exhibition manager said. “If you’re working, then you’ll see the process.” 

Soyer accepted the position. For her, the job was in her words, “the best thing that happened to me at the Museum School.” It allowed her to see the many variables involved in exhibition selection. Bolstered with a deeper understanding of the jury process and its uncertainties, Soyer felt she could focus on her own sense of her work free from outside opinions.

Elif Soyer in her studio. Image courtesy of Claire Ogden.

After her MFA, Soyer founded Moe Fencing Club, and she now works there full-time as a fencing coach and manager. Even now, she still divides her time between art and work, intentionally cycling between them. Fencing is concrete, it’s social, and it’s physical, helping Soyer balance the solitary pressures of making art: “when you fence, you either get a point or you don’t get a point. With art, you have to be really self-driven and want to be doing it.” 

Work from Elif Soyer’s exhibition, “Yellow.” Image courtesy of Claire Ogden.

Routine is a strong theme in Elif Soyer’s work. In her exhibition “Yellow,” on view this month, Soyer collected the snail mail that arrives at her home, chopping up these mundane artifacts into their base colors and patterns and repurposing them into art objects. According to her artist statement for “Yellow,” this recycling of discarded materials is a reminder that “nothing ever completely disappears. We may forget it for a while, but its presence remains.” Her practice both mirrors “capitalist routine,” as she calls it, and looks toward something more thoughtful and humane. 

Soyer thinks through the materials she uses, working them over and over until they feel finished. The process she employs to build the image, though repetitive, presents endless potential resolutions from image to image. She works in what she calls an “OCD” manner, obsessing over the details and continuously working for perfection. Once she’s satisfied with the arrangement of the paper squares, she lets go of that OCD quality a bit, pouring a large amount of yellow paint into the center. She loves the way the wet paint looks, smooth and lively compared to the white squares. 

That pour is also “the scariest part” for her, though. After the care with which she has built the image underneath she has to tolerate the loss of control and simply “see what happens.” Once it dries, she can see the work in a new way and once again feels a renewed determination to resolve the piece. Soyer often stencils drawings and symbols into those ‘imperfect’ paint creases, always iterating.

The resulting images are clear critiques of consumerism, and of the undervalued place of art in American culture. Soyer dislikes spending money on new materials: “[when you’re] creating a product that we really don’t value in this country at all, there’s just something wrong with spending money on that.” Instead, she prefers to give new life to old work.

In one memorable anecdote, Soyer reminisced about the joy she felt when it came time to remove a large sculpture she had installed at the SMFA Tufts. Her piece was so big that it could only be destroyed, not removed, and for Soyer, that destruction was a key part of the artwork itself. She doesn’t have much reverence for her own art objects, but instead cares more about practices of creating and sharing the work.

Soyer ultimately wants to know that her art will be kept in good company, rather than sitting idly in her studio. “I would give it all away,” Soyer said, “so people could live with it. So it could have a purpose other than my self-centered need to make something.”  

Elif Soyer, image courtesy of Claire Ogden.

Boiling Point: Color, Touch, and Texture at the Kingston

At the gallery this month, artists explore a potent combination of joy and grief.

Diane Novetsky, Push Comes to Shovel, 2021. 

At the May 6th reception at Kingston Gallery, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. This month, the works of On-Kyeong Seong, Diane Novetsky, and Susan Emmerson fill the space with an emotional intensity that feels well-timed with the sudden arrival of summer. The show is bursting at the seams, teeming with a potent combination of joy and grief.

In the Main Gallery, On-Kyeong Seong’s Boundless Garden playfully juxtaposes vibrant ceramic sculptures and mixed media (oil and thread) paintings. This combination is new to Seong’s process. She thinks of her sculptures as preliminary “sketches” for her paintings and uses sculpture to embody and explore her ideas in a tangible form. She feels inspired by this tactile medium, distilling the life force of her sculptures into 2-dimensional work that seems to live a life of its own, growing out of the confines of the canvas.

On-Kyeong Seong, Self-Portait I, 2021. Mixed medium on canvas. 

Seong etches her expressions directly into the canvas, with patient stitching from her sewing machine. An explosion of color, sewn shapes and lines, and painted pattern creates a feeling of harnessed chaos, where each piece seems to be fighting between figuration and abstraction. Moments of fully formed figures, flora, and fauna poke through the abstract cross-stitching. 

On-Kyeong Seong, Boundless Garden, studio view.

These overflowing gardens of the mind brim with life. Together with the painting, Seong’s intricate stitches add a sense of movement and texture to her compositions. She molds the fragility of thread into bold combinations of piled sewn elements and paint. These are experimental explorations into the multi-dimensional aspects of womanhood, and what has often been minimized as “women’s work.”

On-Kyeong Seong, A hard day’s me with Mickey, machine stitchery, mixed medium and oil on canvas, 2021.
Detail view.

In the Project Space, Susan Emmerson’s The Last Thing They Wore: Dressing for a Pandemic addresses the sheer scale of COVID-related death and grief. Inspired by the Faces of COVID social media account, Emmerson felt compelled to respond to the careless societal desire to return to ‘normal’ by creating an installation tribute to those who have perished. Disturbed by the anonymity of each person’s death reduced to numbers, Emmerson worked to convey their individuality by depicting clothing in which they looked happiest or most comfortable––taken from posts on each of their social media accounts. Hung slightly out from the wall, these pieces are haunted by the shadows that surround them. Though the figures are small, their specificity conveys an incalculable amount of heartache and loss.

Susan Emmerson, The Last Thing They Wore: Dressing for a Pandemic, installation view.

In the Center Gallery, Diane Novetsky’s Stay on It acts as a bridge between Seong’s and Emmerson’s work. It mirrors the raw emotion of Emmerson’s figures and pairs well with Seong’s boldness of color and composition. Nearly symmetrical curvilinear forms pack the frame, and the colors pop. Novetsky’s chosen title, Stay on It, refers to the mantra she adopted while working in her studio at the onset of the pandemic. Like the title itself, the works are meditative and engrossing. 

Diane Novetsky, Tete-a-tete, 2021.

As the Supreme Court prepares to revoke reproductive rights this summer and white supremacist shootings continue at an alarming pace, the specter of grief is ever prescient. Amid an increasingly chaotic world order, it is more important than ever to grapple with pain and loss.

Though wide-ranging, all three artists’ work contains a measured dedication to physicality and tactility. From Emmerson’s paper figures to Seong’s sewn worlds, to Novetsky’s sublime color, the works highlight a vulnerability inherent to life and art. As one might expect, it’s a challenge to express the sheer intensity of these works in written form. It’s best to witness this energy in the flesh.

From the Botanical, to the Cosmos, to the Earth: A Survey of Painting at the Kingston

by Claire Ogden

Efforvescence (aft van Dael), oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches, 2020.

Even with the increasing popularity of digital art creation and ownership, the oft-rumored “death of painting” has never truly come to pass. In fact, it is more alive than ever. At the Kingston Gallery this month, painters present the mystery and meditative quality that’s inherent to the medium’s continued importance. Exhibitions by Stacey Cushner, Judith Brown, and guest artist Dianna Vosburg––which range from the realistic, to the impressionistic and the abstract––all share a sense of life and light that transcends the paint on the canvas. 

Tea Tree (for Toni), graphite on Arches paper, 30 x 22 inches (framed), 2022.

Cushner’s and Brown’s paintings both ponder death in a way that centers life. In the Main Gallery, Stacey Cushner’s exhibit “Tomorrow’s Yesterdays” uses the genre of still life to sit with death and grief. In Tea Tree – for Toni (2022), Cushner transforms a healing tree into a symbol of remembrance for her late cousin Toni, who passed away in 2015. In an interview with myself, the Gallery’s Emerging Arts Writer, Cushner remembered how “people just rallied” after her cousin’s death, tending to each other’s needs and helping each other cope with the sadness and trauma. As a result, there is a hopeful quality to her paintings and sketches, and the dark edges and bright colors are brimming with the possibility of life. As opposed to vanitas, a genre of still life that employs overt symbols of death, the emotional center of Cushner’s work focuses on remembrance and the triumph of life. In the Project Space, Judith Brown’s landscapes show a lush beauty with a touch of precarity. Brown states that for her, painting offers us an opportunity to slow down in times of uncertainty; as Brown states, it is an “insistence on joy, on seizing the moment.”  

Dance Under the Night Sky, oil, 24 x 24 inches, 2021.

Cushner’s and Brown’s exhibits are strong conceptual bookends for Dianna Vosburg’s more abstract pieces in the Center Gallery. Her work focuses on the theme of looking up and, as Vosburg said, seeing “the bigger dramas, the beauty that’s far away.” Her masterful use of paint imagines the interplay of light and darkness in the cosmos, the stars and suns lit by some ethereal being. By “looking up,” Vosburg said, perhaps we can temporarily transcend the pain of the everyday. 

Blue Revelation, oil on linen, 16 x 36 inches, 2021.

Painting is itself a genre of transformation, of building a world up from mere pigments and gestures. It is also hard work—work that is rendered invisible once the painting is finished. As Judith Brown said in an interview, it is a somewhat ludicrous enterprise: “we take this toxic waste, and we insist on creating this incredible sensation of air and space and light on a two dimensional surface,” she said. From the act of creating a painting to installation, the process demands a plethora of decisions at every turn. As Vosburg said, “It’s about embodiment because you know you imbue the paint with all the material levels of it until it becomes an absolute vision of itself. And it becomes some way of tangling up our consciousness, just like our bodies somehow tangle up our consciousness.” It is a labor of love and intellect, and each brushstroke renders an increasingly vivid world. 

Flash Bang, oil on linen, 16 x 36 inches, 2021.

Much in the way that a painting transcends its original materials, the gallery as a whole transcends each individual exhibition. With all their lush colors and light, these paintings create an atmosphere all their own, providing the feeling of something rising up and breathing. 

Image courtesy of Claire Ogden.

“We are playing with what’s inside the frame and what’s outside the frame,” Vosburg said. “It’s very playful and very alive, and I do love that about oil painting, its stillness and the paradoxical fact that it’s always moving.”

“I think there’s a sense of play at hand, even in the tragic stuff,” Vosburg said. “Is there something good around the bend? Is there something bad? When there’s lots of death in the family or just the state of our world today, I think the pain elevates us in a way, because it means we’re capable of as much love as we are of destruction.”

As we continue to hope for a return to post-pandemic life, these paintings give permission to slow down and appreciate just how much we still have to be grateful for.

Autumn Choir (aft de Bray), oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2013 and 2022.

At Boundaries/Borders, Kingston Artists Show the Beauty of Co-creation

In a stunning and wide-ranging group exhibition, Kingston artists show what being a co-op gallery is all about.

By Claire Ogden

“What does it mean to exist within a border?” At the Boundaries/Borders show at Kingston Gallery this month, artists transform what is so often a political question––and an especially timely one now, as Russia’s war on Ukraine drags on––into an aesthetic and ontological question. An impressive arrangement of pieces is on view, curated by Erica Licea-Kane and Krystle Brown and ranging in genres from sculpture to digital animation. By juxtaposing themes both political and emotional, Kingston artists unearth questions and conundrums in the borders that surround us.

Praakamakul, Ponnapa. Planet Earth, mixed media on paper with found charcoal, soil, and mineral from San Pedro de Atacama Desert in Chile. 2019.

Upon entering the gallery, I was struck by the eclectic pairings of works in the Main Gallery. The contrast in color, medium, and form between Susan Greer Emmerson’s bright red Tyvek sculptures are almost jarring when paired with Ponnapa Prakkamakul’s earthy and deep stereographic collages. Yet the crisp, winding shapes of Emmerson’s work do find a conceptual companion in Prakkamakul’s soft, mesmerizing circles, meditatively layering soil and minerals from the Atacama Desert observatory telescope atop her paintings. Emmerson’s work, though made of so-called trash, “echo waves, wind, and the contortions of the earth,”according to her artist statement. Similarly, the natural materials in Prakkamakul’s work serve as a refreshing reminder of life outside the gallery’s walls. Both pieces straddle the borders between art and trash, nature and culture. On the opposite wall, Bonnie Donohue’s archival images of the Green Belt and the Iron Curtain bring the political bent of the show in clear relief. 

Susan Greer Emmerson. Consumed, acrylic on cut and molded Tyvek. 2018.

The words “boundaries” and “borders” are awash in both fine arts and political discourse, respectively, and yet this show moves past each their at-times limiting definitions. By pairing overtly political works with more formal and abstract pieces, artists collapse boundaries physical, geo-political, environmental, and even psychological. The result is a visual argument that places uncertainty and in-betweenness at the forefront of our understanding. It’s an experimentation in form, curation, and social imagination––refusing the readymade conceptual shortcuts of these borders and boundaries. 

Installation view of Julie S. Graham’s “3 Visual Books.” Image courtesy of Claire Ogden.

The show is also a testament to the benefits of the cooperative sentiment of the gallery. As an artist-run gallery started in 1982, the Kingston is an institution that relies on creative collaboration and cross-pollination. In the Project Space this month is late gallery members’ work, Julie S. Graham, lovingly curated by Kingston member Chantal Zakari and her collaborator Mags Harries. Graham’s playful assortment of work, part sketchbook, and part artist’s books, is spread across the gallery’s walls, the canvas works alternating on the wall. Occasionally Graham inserts an additional piece of canvas-like material, playfully extending the picture plane. It’s a whimsical and lively assortment of work. Graham’s language of lines and repetitive, rhythmic forms is mesmerizing, and beckons one in to view the complex surface of the work further. Surface is a preoccupation in Graham’s work, and controlled mark, pattern and shape cut through the rich surfaces with a quiet and patient persistence. In the way that Main Gallery artists have questioned borders, Graham refutes the constraints of the rectangle, surprising the viewer into seeing both object and illusion at the same time. 

Though Graham has passed on, her influence at the Gallery is evident. Graham’s subtle color palettes and extensions of the canvas echo in Luanne E. Wittowski’s work and more subtly in Ponnapa Prakkamakul’s mixed media with found objects. As a testament to the cooperative nature of this exhibition and of the Gallery in general, it is a wonder to behold.

Boundaries/Borders closes this Sunday, March 27.

Witowski, Luanne E. See Green, mixed materials on canvas and panel. 2018.

Visualizing the Anthropocene: Kingston Artists Look Back and Forward

By Claire Ogden

Kaczur, Amy. Messages from the Marsh – part 1, Video Still, sizes variable, 2021.

How might we approach environmental art in the age of the Anthropocene? Climate reporting has failed to adapt to the times, portraying environmental degradation with a dire tone or ignoring it entirely. Meanwhile, many flock to podcasts and other less reputable sources to avoid the doom-and-gloom. There is a disparity between the stale dissemination of environmental truths and the environment’s visceral, embodied connection to our actual lives. There is a need for more poetic and holistic understandings of climate.

At the Kingston Gallery through February 27, exhibits from Rhonda Smith, Amy Kaczur, and Bonnie Donohue each show a unique approach to installation that helps us rethink how we relate to our environment. Artists portray a hopeful and loving portrait of land––the stories told by beings living and nonliving alike––looking toward both the past and future. Though each exhibit differs in its approach, there is a clear common thread of love, attention, and care in all three.

Collapse, acrylic, clay, cement, foam, papier-mache, rock netting, silk, wire. 2021.

Rhonda Smith’s “Say I am You” in the Main Gallery transforms the poetry of Rumi into a sculptural love letter for all of life and earthly existence. Lively and lifeless all at once, Smith’s Collapse is like a marriage between limestone and a mounted skull. It has all the stark beauty of Georgia O’Keefe’s Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills. The acrylic and clay, both bone- and stone-like, desiccate to reveal a net structure underneath. With these haunting materials, we could be witnessing a period of decay or rapid growth. In line with Rumi’s all-encompassing words, we are both life and death, survival and extinction. This moment holds all possibility and history within it.

O’Keefe, Georgia. Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills. 1935.

In the Center Gallery, Amy Kaczur’s Messages from the Marsh immerses the viewer in the sights and sounds of her dedicated trips to several Massachusetts area marshes and wetlands. The installation swallows up the small Center Gallery, presenting a triptych of GoPro footage that careens in and out of often murky and filthy marsh water. It’s like a video collage––part of a lineage of experimental filmmakers and video installation artists like Joan Jonas and Nam June Paik––that straddles abstraction and representation. Beginning with the image of a clear blue sky on the left, the camera floats up until it immerses us in the marsh water. The clear blue skies intensely juxtapose the yellow and deep brown hues of the pond water. It’s dizzying; the camera’s movement ranges from patient to hectic, the water occasionally rippling with a frenetic quality. Kaczur stitches together sounds from over four marshes in Massachusetts, gurgling and muffled yet deep. Reminiscent of ethnographic filmmaker Isabel Carbonell’s multispecies portraits of environmental degradation, Kaczur’s work is unsettling yet awe-inspiring. As the viewer leaves the Center Gallery, they are met with a series of maps forecasting coastal flooding––patient, speculative portraits of locales soon to be lost. These maps, which are more analytical in their approach than Kaczur’s embodied video installations, serve as a bridge between Smith’s abstractions and Bonnie Donohue’s research-based work in the Project Space. 

Kaczur, Amy. Messages from the Marsh – part 2,Video Still, sizes variable, 2021.

In the Project Space, Bonnie Donohue shares works in progress from an upcoming artist book, Colonial Footprints: A Radical Atlas of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Unlike Kaczur’s speculative maps, Donohue’s visualizations betray a destruction that has already come to be: the Navy’s extractive relationship with Puerto Rico. Her research––compiled from many years of documenting, interviewing, and researching the island’s history––shows a dedicated attention to questions of space, place, and power. Donohue frames a narrative out of her meticulous research, sculpting an anti-imperialist argument out of the visual culture of the time. The United States government’s cold, bureaucratic documents––some of them actually visualized from documents that no longer exist in physical form––contrast powerfully with images of native Puerto Ricans displaced from their ancestral homes. 

Bonnie Donohue, 2021.

Returning to the Main Gallery, Rhonda Smith’s work is the poetic thread that unites the show. After viewing scenes of anthropogenic devastation and unsettling visualizations, Rhonda Smith’s optimism is what grounded me back into a sense of love and care. Her hybrid living-nonliving forms puzzle and delight, giving us a sense of deep existential mystery that we can only hope to unravel.  

Whether we fall into the intense cynicism of the bitter, or perhaps into an optimistic naivete, the zeitgeist has reached a boiling point. But the presence of love––as an imaginative, rejuvenating and sustained practice of care––is what we must remember. In simultaneously visualizing destruction and hope, this month’s Kingston artists show us what this practice of care can look like.

Nest, acrylic, netting, colored sand, papier-mache, wire. 2021.

Political Playground: Abstraction and Figuration Face Off in Jennifer Moses’ Rock, Paper, Scissors 

At Kingston Gallery, Jennifer Moses’ Rock, Paper, Scissors uses a playful visual language to convey the political frustrations of our time.  

By Claire Ogden

Pow, flashe and ink on Yupo. Jennifer Moses, 2021. 

What kind of political art might suit our current climate? A new COVID-19 variant and its ensuing closures have once again returned; President Biden, who as a candidate called for a strong federal government response to the pandemic, has now seemingly flip-flopped. This nonsense can’t be contained in the adult world’s 24-hour news cycle alone; it is political child’s play, the stuff of cartoons. In Rock, Paper, Scissors, on view through January 16, Jennifer Moses takes us back to the playground for a playful and cynical view of this day and age.

The compositions of Rock, Paper, Scissors are flat yet full of movement. Moses works in ink and flashe, a medium which she loves in part because, as she says, “light doesn’t emanate from it, it kind of sucks up the light in an interesting way.” This combination of ink and flashe is a pleasant surprise to the eye. Inherent in flashe is a bold and colorful matte surface, which lends itself well to Moses’ combination of abstract and representational shapes. The black and white ink serves as a compelling textural counterpoint to the flat shapes, replacing the viewer’s expectation of a comic book landscape with something more ironic. Inspired by artists such as Phillip Guston, Stuart Davis, Matisse, and Jacob Lawrence, Moses’ results manage to strike the notoriously difficult balance of being both politically engaged and aesthetically interesting. 

Jennifer Moses, Rock paper scissors 2, gouache on paper. 2021. 

Despite how immediate these pieces look, their process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. The material of flashe itself is thick and can only be worked over so often before the surface becomes impossible to work with. Likewise, Moses’ cartoonish imagery is in fact the result of a long history of experimentation. She is influenced by Sienese medieval paintings, which she says struck her as “very abstract despite their nature of storytelling. Although they are composed of biblical figures and representational spaces, they’re flat and stylized.” In the early aughts, Moses grew tired of figuration, so she transitioned away from the figure, “lifting objects from art history” as she puts it. She zoomed into these compositions, painting the parts of the figure––the hairdos, robes, and other things––that inspired her. She’s been exploring the boundaries between figuration and abstraction ever since. At one point in her artistic evolution, Moses experimented with both painting and collage in the same pieces. Despite leaving collage behind, that influence is still evident in her work today. The disparate shapes she creates all seem to be at odds with each other, abstract and figurative facing off in a heated debate. 

Night, Kay Walkingstick. 1991.
Chase II and Onetwothreeshoot. Jennifer Moses, 2021.

One of the most compelling aspects of Rock, Paper, Scissors is in its pairing of paintings, several in diptych-like arrangements. Often used in religious art, diptychs typically present a narrative. Artists like Kay Walkingstick, however, have used the form to contrast two parts of a piece, emphasizing their emotional rather than visual connections. In Night (1991), Walkingstick used the diptych to show Ithaca’s gorges on one side and her “internal spiritual comprehension” in the other, creating a visual representation of grief after her husband’s death. At Kingston, Jennifer Moses has paired her paintings like diptychs, creating the sensation that these works are all bumping heads. The pairing of Chase II and Onetwothreeshoot extends each works’ combative effect past the canvas. The figures in Chase II almost seem to be running away from Onetwothreeshoot, whose clenched fists look menacing in comparison. This movement leads the viewer through the rest of the show, as if compelling them to turn the pages of a comic book. Later, the ghostly form from Onetwothreeshoot returns––as if having lost his battle.

Rock, paper. Ink on Yupo paper. Jennifer Moses, 2021. 

At this point in the pandemic, Americans are more frazzled than ever, yet political solutions have led to an endless stalemate. Perhaps by retreating to the straightforward logic of the comic book, we can escape this current reality, or even dream up more compelling solutions. Critical yet still playful, Rock, Paper, Scissors is a refreshing break from the mayhem. 

Linda Leslie Brown’s “Entangled” Imagines Survival in the Post-Anthropocene Era

This November, Brown’s sculptures harness ideas of genetic recombination and transmutation, bringing new life to discarded objects.

By Claire Ogden

Entangled (installation view), 2021. Image courtesy of the artist. 

As I walked into the Kingston Gallery on November 5th, I felt as if I’d entered a scientific laboratory, a exotic animal mating ritual, and a taxidermy store all at once. These life-and-death contradictions are key to Linda Leslie Brown’s Entangled, on view through November 28. The exhibit presents a fascinating set of sculptures made from ceramic and found objects alike, reimagining Darwin’s ideas of sexual reproduction and genetic recombination for the anthropocene. Each piece has a surprising vitality, despite their composition from discarded objects.

The impressions these sculptures create are both exciting and disturbing. Upon first glance, the large square table in the center of the exhibit draws the eye. It’s clinical yet inviting, like some strange combination of an operating table and a dinner party. (Whether these creatures are at a singles event or being served for dinner, it’s hard to say.) On the table, there is a series of sculpture-creatures, all splayed out next to each other and attached—or entangled—to the others with a colorful plastic tube. Their interconnectedness is both a hopeful and an ominous sign. Brown’s ceramic pieces bend and curve, like toothpaste tubes or pieces of coral. Found objects, from birch branches to circuit boards, coexist in the sculptures’ hybrid forms. More works are affixed to the wall: Lively and colorful, they bear a striking resemblance to butterflies pinned to boards. 

Brown sees her sculptures not as living things, but as fossilized remains: “​​These are sort of after-lives,” she says. Despite this “fossilized” quality, there is something remarkably alive about her work. 

These dual life-like and cadaverous qualities are the result of both the process and the project of her work: making something beautiful from capitalist ruins, teasing something life-like out of decay and waste. 

Aerial Lavender, ceramic and mixed media. 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Brown has a nonlinear work process that matches this ethos. She doesn’t start with a strong conceptual controlling idea. Rather, she begins the process by intuitively creating a ceramic sculpture. This process is tactile; she lets the material of the piece guide her. Once the clay is fired, it’s ready for what she calls “assembly mode:” looking for objects that fit the shape and sensibility of the clay. Thanks to her husband, Ari Montford’s, tradition of long, scavenging walks in Boston, Linda now has a pile of found objects in her studio—a veritable treasure trove waiting to be explored and repurposed.

The look and feel of Brown’s work is reminiscent of the “exquisite corpses,” those collaborative drawing projects pioneered by the Surrealists. These “corpses”—which emerge by folding the drawing over, each artist concealing their part of the work from collaborators—are known for their dreamy and nightmarish qualities. Brown’s work shares the Surrealists’ whimsical-yet-grotesque sensibility. Her sculptures appear as though they’ve been worked on intuitively, following the whims of the material rather than a preconceived plan. Instead of collaborating with others, then, Brown collaborates with the variables and uncertainties of the found objects and clay. She never knows what she’ll find on the streets, or what textures and shapes will emerge from the kiln.

Variant Pink C, ceramic and mixed media, 2021. 

This exquisite corpse sensibility is perhaps best expressed in Variant Pink C. In it, a plastic tube flows through what looks to be the bust of a doll; a crop of fur is embedded in the back of the piece. Holes and bubbles make an equal appearance, showcasing the vulnerability of these materials. Is this all one organism? It’s hard to believe that this is the work of just one person. It looks like something out of Beetlejuice, or Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Mind of the Mound: Where the latter two were created entire fantasy worlds with their own logic, Brown summons fantastical creatures from everyday monotony. 

In this, she takes inspiration from Yuyi Agematsu, a sculptor whose media of choice include cigarette butts and other detritus. Brown loves the way Agematsu “builds these fantastic little sculptures, things that are totally cast off, and never in a million years would be considered art supplies. Rotted plastic bags, you both pull those out of a tree, and then take them and tease them into shapes that look completely alive.” 

Lavender Balance, ceramic and mixed media, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist. 

This sense of recombination and rebirth is integral to Brown’s work, as her practice is intricately tied to her surrounding environment. In a recent arts residency at Monson Arts Center, located close to the end of the Appalachian Trail, Brown achieved a sort of mental rebirth of her own. The location of the residency was remote, yet still occupied: In the intersection between the distant rural landscape and the presence of Appalachian Trail hikers, it seems she had an experience of aesthetic renewal. 

Especially now, as the current pandemic’s effects gradually lessen, Brown is ready to venture off into the world and continue this aesthetic exploration.  

“There’s not been a lot of outside influence happening. And I’m hungry for that,” Brown said. “Now, I really want to get out more, look at more work, and think about other artists’ work. I’d like to go to New York again, you know, and do all of those things that we didn’t do because of the pandemic. I’d like to stretch a little bit. It just felt very confined.”

As humanity comes out of the last species-threatening event (and, very likely,  into the next one), Brown’s work seems to hope for a second chance for life. In her artist statement, she refers to the possibility of sexual reproduction and transmutation to produce new possibilities for survival: “I imagine that such adaptations may be occurring even now: in the depths of mother ocean, among our gut bacteria, or nested in mycelium tendrils wrapped around the roots of trees.”

Linda Leslie Brown’s Entangled, on view through November 28, is an exhibition for a strange and hybrid future—though perhaps not a lifeless one. 

Matter Out of Place: Domestic and Wild Scenes from Joan Baldwin’s Inner World

In Baldwin’s October 2021 exhibition, the natural and the domestic world are at odds—and there are no human subjects in sight.

In our lingering climate (of) crisis, interruptions and inconveniences come as no surprise. In just the past month, we’ve seen persistent supply chain hiccups, a 6-hour Facebook outage in early October, and the further acceleration of the “Great Resignation,” with an unprecedented number of Americans quitting their jobs. Given the ongoing pandemic and climate crisis, “normality” seems silly to reach for at this point. There are so many disruptions at play these days that there is a slim chance of making sense of it all. Sometimes, the most we can do is sit with the strangeness.

Joan Baldwin’s October exhibition at the Kingston Gallery does just that. Her two exhibits “Above and Beyond” (Main Gallery) and “Uninvited Guests” (Center Gallery) are a meditation on ‘matter out of place,’ to borrow anthropologist Mary Douglas’ term. In the Main Gallery, “Above and Beyond” shows a series of figurative yet surreal landscapes with couches and crows vying for dominance. Meanwhile, “Uninvited Guests” in the Center Gallery promises a three-wall installation resembling the window views of Baldwin’s Cape Cod home, with moths and other odd creatures sneaking in. The two shows are quite different in form, yet both promise worlds where our expectations have been suspended in favor of something stranger. These are worlds that beg to be unraveled.

Throughout the show, there is a subject that keeps reappearing: furniture. This comes from Joan Baldwin’s own background as an illustrator. Before pursuing work as a full time artist, she made artwork for the furniture industry and for a newspaper. While she’s retired from commercial illustration now, Baldwin still finds herself drawn to painting furniture. Now, she has the creative freedom to put a surreal twist on it.

“When I was doing the illustration for the trade shows,” Baldwin said in an interview, “I had to have it exactly the way [the object] looked. And so I was really kind of constrained.” In her current work, she allows herself to be more spontaneous. With this latest exhibit she has tried to emulate the process of Gustav Klimt, whom she admires for “letting the brush go where it wants to go without him planning the strokes.” In the bottom of Ruffles, we see this spontaneity in action. As if abandoning the figurative project mid-stroke, Joan’s brushstrokes dash off, escaping the confines of their literal origins and leaving the subject with a few metaphorical flourishes. These “ruffles” merge into the landscape surrounding the chair, and, like the show as a whole, the painting becomes a hybrid of literal and surreal impulse. 

Ruffles, oil on canvas, 2020.

One of Joan’s main inspirations is her Cape Cod house, which she appreciates for its untamed beauty: “you can go for a long walk and not even run into anybody,” she said of it. “It’s really beautiful and kind of wild.” 

Despite Baldwin’s clear soft spot for human-free landscapes, there’s still an element of humanity in her work. This human influence is most evident in Garden Toast. In the painting, a wine bottle spills out onto an empty pink chair, with a matching set of pink heels haphazardly parked in the grass. This landscape has touches of the human—the shoes, the wine—and the chair itself is a charming substitute for the human subject. According to Baldwin, when she first put the furniture into her landscapes, she was initially surprised that the chairs she painted “took on a personality of their own.” Presented with a landscape that was nonetheless full of human influence, I was free to invent a narrative for the painting. 

Garden Toast, oil on canvas, 2020.

While the absence of humans allows for narrative world-building in “Above and Beyond,” it also allows insects and creatures to sneak in in their place — something that Baldwin’s Artist Statement says can “make your life miserable.” We see this in “Uninvited Guests.” In the Center Gallery, a series of fantastical creatures sneak into a recreation of Baldwin’s Cape Cod Home, a setup she has described as “almost like a theater set.” Wild creatures, for Baldwin, are not compatible with the order and organization of the human world. Still, she asserts this wildlife is “worth studying, labeling, categorizing and mounting on boards with pins.” 

Uninvited Guests. Installation view.

This statement is worth unpacking: why the need to study these creatures scientifically? After the whimsical and magical “Above and Beyond,” it is unusual to introduce the scientific method. Despite the uninhibited boundary crossing between the domestic and the wild in “Above and Beyond,” this statement reveals a wish to keep the wilderness under control. It is an urge to scientifically understand, I think, what can only be intuitively and emotionally understood. It’s reminiscent of our cultural moment, where so much is inexplicable and out of place. (Note: these works were produced in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.) I see this scientific urge as a desire to understand and cope with the ever-present crises of this age. With some categorization and some science, Baldwin might hope (as do we) that we can solve or at least understand the disruptions we’ve gone through. 

Part of this scientific urge may come from aging and grief. In our interview, Baldwin shared that “As you get older, the older generation dies, and then you start accumulating other people’s things. It’s not like we pick them out. As you get older and you look around, you go, ‘wow, we have this strange combination of things we’ve gotten from other people.’” Thus, the familiar space of the home becomes increasingly filled with memorabilia from other’ past lives. Objects loaded with memories are stiltedly fit into someone else’s life. These objects are the true uninvited guests, and they haunt Baldwin’s work.“It brings back memories, you know? I know that they would want us to treasure what they’ve given us or put some value to it, not just give it away to somebody else,” she says. Although these objects are uninvited, that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome. Baldwin’s show is an imaginative attempt to make sense of that which is so clearly out of place. 

A personal favorite is Morning Moth. If the rest of the show is mystifying in its balance between the domestic and wild, this work is a clear exception. Wild branches and leaves easily embrace the subject of the painting, a cozy cabin-like space—creating a frame-within-a-frame around the subject that is almost nest-like. In this snug frame, a larger-than-life moth, small bird, and miniscule chair coexist, oddly yet peaceably. Though this surreal sense of scale might have been puzzling, by the time I had reached this work I embraced its logic immediately. While most of the work in “Above and Beyond” elicited questions, this work presented a clear and friendly opportunity to admire. 

Morning Moth, oil on canvas. 2020.

In Baldwin’s show, certain questions seem to want to be asked: What are the rules of these strange mindscapes? Can we feel at home here? After a walk through the Kingston’s October exhibit, asking these questions becomes more important than answering them. Baldwin’s exhibition is fit for coping with a world that has stopped making sense. It is a pleasant and puzzling surprise. In this whimsical series, Baldwin has invited us all into a fantastically strange and refreshing world—and it is an invitation that I wholeheartedly recommend you accept.

Baldwin’s show is on view through October 31. Catch it before it’s gone!

Kledia Spiro: Too (un)Familiar?

by Margaret Goddard

“It’s a Family Practice” Video Still, 2021, Dimensions Variable

It can be hard, if not impossible, for someone born and raised in the U.S. to understand an immigrant’s struggle. In Kledia Spiro’s video performance It’s a Family Practice, she has the insider play outsider for once. The piece was part of her solo show Too (un)Familiar? at Boston’s Kingston Gallery this spring, along with installation art, photography, and augmented reality. The performance explores her family’s experience immigrating from Albania through the lens of weightlifting, a tool Kledia uses often in her art. The performance was filmed this past winter during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the family was living under the same roof for the first time since they moved to the U.S.

While Kledia was weightlifting one day last summer, she wrote in her journal, “When people judge art on what art is they look at two things: how familiar it is so they can relate, and how too familiar it is so they can disregard. It’s a fine line and the public is a harsh critic.” People who aren’t artists or art consumers sometimes find abstract art too familiar and thus devoid of meaning, saying, “How is that considered art? A child could do that.” On the other end of the spectrum, people can find art alienating: as if it is only meant to be understood by some elite class. Kledia’s mission in It’s a Family Practice was to straddle that line, allowing the viewer who is typically an insider feel like an outsider, and vice versa.

It begins with a flock of geese following each other in a swoop across a split-channel screen. Kledia, her sister Erinda, her mother Linda, and her father Dion follow each other’s footsteps through the snow, carrying a welded barbell with seats on either end. Clips of Kledia weightlifting in different settings and times of year cut in and out to the beat of a heavy barbell’s clink. Her parents sit on each end of the barbell and make conversation while Kledia and Erinda help each other put on their weightlifting belts. The sisters squat, do jumping jacks and do push ups in sync.

As Linda and Dion talk, the sisters make coffee and serve it to their parents on a bumper plate. Her parents’ voices are soft and full of love to my ignorant ear, and I wanted to understand the Albanian words. I thought I heard English and Spanish words I knew like “No more snow,” “Ok, thank you,” “espinaca,” and “temperatura” but I couldn’t be sure. I continued to strain to pick up clues of what they were saying. They laughed at something with each other.

“It’s a family Practice” Video Still, 2021. Dimensions Variable.

A lively music takes over as the sisters try to lift their parents up. The two channels no longer form a single shot and go out of sync. Sometimes the screen is mirrored so it looks like the same person is on each end of the barbell, trying to lift it. Linda gets up from her seat to help her daughters lift their father. Finally, Dion puts his coffee down and gets up too, and all four are able to lift the barbell.

The music changes again and they grab each other’s hands and dance around the barbell. The snow makes it hard to dance, but they dance anyway. They dance on their own and then hold hands again. Finally they settle down, sitting in a row. Each channel shows a different take of this scene, where the family settles down in slightly different ways: on one side, they sit slightly apart from each other and on the other side they each have a hand on the other, forming a single mass. They look out at the frozen reservoir together as the sun sets. A car’s brake lights travel across the distant hill. Birds, crows, and a passing car are the last sounds we hear as the screen goes dark.

As the performance swung back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar, I resigned myself to ambiguity, as all good art encourages you to do. I experienced some familiarity when I thought I recognized words I knew and when I heard the sounds of geese, crows, and passing cars, sounds that I know like the back of my hand. I never realized how ingrained those sounds are in my memory. I also watched the Spiro family celebrate things they were familiar with, things I have never seen or heard and know nothing about. I felt like an outsider being invited in.

“Too (un)Familiar?” Installation View, 2021. Photo by Will Howcroft