Mary Lang recently visited Oregon, and one of her destinations was the Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club in Portland, where she took a number of photos. This doesn’t mean that model trains are a full-blown obsession of hers…yet.
As she said to me, “I’m not sure I’m doing a project on model railroads necessarily, but I’m interested enough to follow this thread.” Lang had always heard about the Columbia Gorge club, and this visit provided her a great opportunity to play around, have some fun, and follow her intuition. It would not be the first time that one of Lang’s photographic series evolved from focusing on something that was interesting, without exactly knowing what would come of it.
As is evident from the images above, the models as Lang shot them involve her longtime focus on the landscape. As miniature built environments, they bring to mind the traces that people leave in sites familiar to them, such as the tiny trucks parked just so, and to alterations made to the land in order to sustain routine, such as bridges joining two facing embankments.
Photographers often become recognized for specific aspects of their craft: the cropping, the timing, the lighting. Lang’s photography embraces stillness. The stillness that she captures with her lens is a type of attention that magnifies what we see to the degree that it seems as though she invented the textures, colors, and contours that shape her subjects.
You can learn more about Mary Lang at her website, www.marylang.com, and find her on Instagram @marystuartlang.
This month marked the end of Lucky Li’s internship at Kingston Gallery. In addition to assisting with marketing, social media, and other duties, she accompanied me on studio visits. I’m very pleased that Lucky will remain with us as one of Kingston’s part-time gallery sitters. Here’s her description of the last studio visit we made together:
Recently I accompanied Shana Dumont Garr on a visit to Luanne E. Witkowski’s studio in the SoWa district. She graciously welcomed us and showed us her past and current work while sharing stories as she did so, giving us insight into the evolution of her process over time.
Early on in the visit I noted Witkowski’s astute take on how others react to her art. She explained that her work often tends to evoke stories from people. Similar to the way she visually expresses a memory with her art, viewers come to her with verbal memories of their own that were evoked by her artwork. The stories others share with her seem to delight and inspire her, and she shared a few with us. One came from a man who said the piece he enjoyed the most was the one with the large fish in it, and proceeded to show her which work he was referring to. He said it reminded him of an anaconda he saw on vacation once. Witkowski didn’t intend to depict any animals in that particular work, but she enjoyed the man’s vivid description, and even changed the name of the work to reflect the story.
One of the things that struck me the most about her from our visit was Witkowski’s passion for connecting with individuals and with her communities she is a part of. She is an active member of several local artist organizations including the United South End Artists, Mission Hill Artist Collective, and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. She also offers Basic Training for Artists and Creative People Workshops (Healthy Artist/Healthy Studio) for institutions and individuals.
It is unsurprising that Witkowski is well-respected within her communities for presenting opportunities and skillfully advising those who express passion and potential in their work and personal character. She is an entrepreneur with a history of making opportunities for herself that started when she was young. She sees her responsibility as an artist being about filling the world with art, and supporting fellow artists. As she carries out these responsibilities, she helps others do the same. Always working with a larger vision in mind, her work is done with the interest of bringing the world to her art, and bringing her art to the world.
Last week, I met with Al Miner at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he works as Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art. He curated our current exhibition, All Natural, featuring Kingston member artists Kathleen Gerdon Archer, Mary Lang, Greg Lookerse, and Christina Pitsch. Each artist examines humankind’s attempts to commune with, control, or contain nature. The exhibition includes a broad representation of media, including photography, sculpture, and performance.
It didn’t take long for me to see that, although Miner says he’s not obsessed with landscape, it holds some fascination for him and, well, for all of us. “It’s a theme that clearly spoke to artists throughout time,” Miner said. Landscape paintings are among the most popular works in the Museum, he said, which is part of why he curated the long-term exhibition, Landscape, Abstracted, on view from August 2014 through July 2017. It includes an immense (24 x 80 feet) mural by Jason Middlebrook that Miner says has become “selfie central.” The point of the exhibition, he said, was to give examples of how artists today are not bound by the same constrictions as artists were in the past. There are so many contemporary takes on landscape, and artworks including Jason Middlebrook’s mural, green chenille beanbag “Topia Chairs” by Barbara Gallucci, and a site-specific installation made with thread and staples by Anne Lindberg demonstrate just how far they can abstract nature. They use color and pattern, among other visual tactics, to respond to the museum’s architecture, while simultaneously evoking nature and seizing upon natural phenomena.
When I inquired about Miner’s own interactions with nature and how they might influence his thinking he said, “I’m curious about whether anything real still exists,” Miner said. He does not want to camp, hike, or otherwise immerse himself in the outdoors. Really, he just wants sit outside at a cafe with a beverage and a piece of cake in the sunshine. That still feels like an authentic outdoor experience, especially if you’ve previously been in a windowless space and/or staring at a computer screen before arriving at said cafe.
“With this group of artists at Kingston,” Miner said, “I found that all four artists were making compelling and consistent bodies of work.” From there, he realized that all four of them dealt with nature, but with boundaries, compromises, and constructs.
Kathleen Gerdon Archer employs alchemy (turning water into ice, then ice back into water), using her own power to transfer elements from one state into another state.
Mary Lang compares dioramas of state parks with actual state parks. First, there is the issue of the gates, stairs, and other fixtures that may be meant to protect the park, but also alter the original landscape. Then there is the contrast of being intrigued by a real place, but realizing it isn’t real.
Greg Lookerse’s performance, Two Fish Cut Into Five Thousand Pieces, exaggerates the rules and constructs we follow when we interact with nature. Photographs documenting the performance are part of the exhibition, along with works from his Honey Storage series, where he folded cut paper from the book The Great American Forest, by Rutherford Platt, into honeycomb shapes. Lookerse, like Archer, alludes to the attraction of alchemy in his work.
Christina Pitsch created clear trophy mount deer heads with cast plastic, sewn vinyl, and sheet acrylic. “They become empty vessels, sucking out the meaning we expect from taxidermy,” said Miner. Pitsch employs her own clean and symmetrical aesthetic to interrogate why we hang something like a hunted and killed deer in an interior space.
Miner appreciated the depth and prolonged exploration evident in each artist’s work. Presented together, viewers become aware of the way all four artists manipulate natural elements,sometimes leading audiences in one conceptual direction, only to complicate our notions of this subject matter with an unexpected conclusion or eschewing one at all, but rather allowing nature’s mysteries to remain unsolved.They also remind us of how far we may have come from having a direct relationship with nature.
Miner is now working on a large group exhibition for the MFA entitled “Megacities Asia,”which examines the way artists in some of Asia’s most quickly expanding cities respond to the urbanization around them with found object practices.One thing that has become clear to him as he works with artists based in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai and Delhi, is that, as he puts it, “being “green” is a luxury.” For instance, there is not yet a vibrant“green movement” in China. Citizens of Asian megacities experience natural spaces in more limited and different contexts, and, as the whole world is urbanizing at a staggering rate, we may soon experience nature this way ourselves. Will every city of the future incorporate green space? Is it and should it be important to every culture or not? Can they build green spaces indoors, or by maintaining a view of the horizon from the upper floors of a high-rise building reinforce a fading connection to the natural world? The artwork Miner included at Kingston raises these and other questions, too. Further, the MFA exhibition will be staged not only inside the Museum’s galleries, but also outdoors.Both exhibitions make it clear that contemporary conversations about landscape are as much about being human as about relating to nature.