All Natural: A Conversation with Al Miner

Installation view, All Natural, Kingston Gallery, September 2015. L-R art by Christina Pitsch, Mary Lang, & Kathleen Gerdon Archer.
Installation view, All Natural, Kingston Gallery, September 2015. L-R art by Christina Pitsch, Mary Lang, & Kathleen Gerdon Archer.

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 Naturalfeaturing 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.

Lookerse_fish
Greg Lookerse, Two Fish Cut Into Five Thousand Piees, #1, edition of 10, archival inkjet print.

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.

I Am A Century Wide, 2015, 24 x 24 inches, polypropylene print mounted on Sintra under plexiglas, 1 of 10
Kathleen Gerdon Archer, I Am A Century Wide, 2015, 24 x 24 inches, polypropylene print mounted on Sintra under plexiglas, 1 of 10

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.

Near Moutlton Falls, WA, 2015, archival digital print, 20 x 30 inches.
Mary Lang, Near Moulton Falls, WA, 2015, archival digital print, 20 x 30 inches.

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.

Postcard of Christina Pitsch, Fragments of Love and Desire: Loveletter, taxidermy deer hoof, ribbon, 19
Postcard of Christina Pitsch, Fragments of Love and Desire: Loveletter,
taxidermy deer hoof, ribbon, 19″ x 8″ x 7″

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.

Installation View, All Natural, Kingston Gallery, Sept. 2015. L-R Greg Lookerse, Mary Lang, Christina Pitsch.
Installation View, All Natural, Kingston Gallery, Sept. 2015. L-R Greg Lookerse, Mary Lang, Christina Pitsch.

Q&A with Sarah Meyers Brent: Flowers, Repurposing Objects, and Working through Life’s Messes

Dripping Plant II, detail.
Dripping Plant II, detail.
Sarah and I met at the gallery on the first day of her exhibition, Salvaged Garden (open July 1 – August 2, 2015) to discuss her work. Although the Center Gallery is not a particularly large space, her works made it seem so, with an installation and two large paintings looking sharp as all get-out.

SDG: Artists such as Rebecca Louise Law take flowers into a sculptural profusion that fills the exhibition space. Your profusion is rooted into abstract painting, even the installations. Tell us about your relationship with painting, and what it has meant to you to expand into installation.

SMB: Ultimately, I want to create an exhibition that has everything. There’s something alluring about that blank rectangle, and I am a painter first, but I also like to see the different ways that the forms I create translate into space. I am working on a few sculptures now in the studio, using similar materials, and look forward to showing them in the near future.

SDG: Your installations have received positive media attention in the past few months, including coverage by Cate McQuaid in the Boston Globe and in Artscope Magazine by Sarah Kinkade. Other than the evident quality and beauty of your work, do you think that the issues you deal with, or perhaps they way you work are having a moment in our cultural imagination?

SMB: I work with repurposed, recycled materials. I love them not just because of the environmental message they contain, but also because they look so cool. I am likely one of many artists out there asking, why put new crap in the world if we can use the old stuff?

I think that STUFF has even more power than ever now because of all of the digital matter we process every day. Actual things really speak to us, their physicality. I love seeing the combinations I can create, and I almost feel like I’m cheating when I put things I’m working on up on the wall-wire, cloth, and floral material-and they look so appealing, organic, and plastic.

“Salvaged Garden” (left) and “Ode to Pregnancy” installed at Kingston Gallery

SDG: I appreciate it when smart, driven artists like yourself openly engage motherhood in their work. It enables viewers to align motherhood with creativity and productivity outside of running a household. What kind of feedback have you received about works such as Ode to Pregnancy or Mommy Love Me, in conjunction with their titles?

SMB: Painting is like therapy for me, and whatever I’m thinking about makes its way into my work. I had two ridiculously dramatic pregnancies, and I am still working through the emotions. My youngest is just seven months old, and the power of the sensations and what a mess babies are is still very much a reality for me.

Many different emotions come up when people view this work, both positive and negative. Teens LOVED the painting “Ode to Pregnancy” when it was exhibited at the Danforth Art Museum. They were curious about the process, i.e. “what IS that, a painting or a sculpture? How did she make it bulge like that?” People have asked whether it depicts a miscarriage, and that becomes a touchy subject. I use my artistic process to work through the mess of life, and ultimately arrive at a form that I find really beautiful, even if not in the traditional sense. That is the point of my art: to capture that simultaneous beauty and ugliness; growth and decay.

Detail,
Detail, “Salvaged Garden,” photo by Elevin Studios.

SDG: As you work, do you make decisions in an organic or intuitive response to the materials, or do you plan how things will go in advance? Do you work in a sketchbook before or while working on a new piece?

SMB: I work on paintings differently than on installations. My paintings evolve as I work, often turning out very differently from how they began. I respond to the materials and the forms as I go, and I like that. I work on the floor a lot, and the paint moves around as I work.

This installation at Kingston was initially designed for a different space, and since then I have reworked it for other spaces. I begin by sketching the overall forms, and as I build it, it grows and changes within the limitations of the space. The organic materials grow and move, and I fix them with wire, but they still do their own thing and surprise me.

SDG: Which artists inspire you? Could you recommend anyone’s work we should have a look at?

SMB: Expressionist artists such as Joan Snyder; particularly her collages and flowers.That is why I love the Danforth Art Museum. Also Joan Mitchell, Lynda BenglisFrank Auerbach, and Chaim Soutine. Contemporary artists I look at include Summer Wheat, Julia-Fernandez Pol, Cecily Brown, and Lauren Rice.

Sarah with her installation at Kingston Gallery.
Sarah with her installation at Kingston Gallery.
SDG: Where can we see your work next?

SMB: I am in the second annual pop-up exhibition at Flock Gallery in Manchester, New Hampshire. The opening reception is Thursday, July 23 at 5:00pm – 8:00pm, and the exhibit runs July 23-28th.

I have a solo exhibition at the Danforth Art Museum in the main center space from March 6 to May 16, 2016. For that exhibition, I will reinstall an archway piece and create a site-specific piece for an alcove. I’ll have news about another group exhibition in the near future as well.

You can follow Sarah on twitter @sarahbrent and on her website: sarahartist.com.

Nature in Flux: A Studio Visit with Joan Baldwin

Joan Baldwin in her Waltham Mills Studio.
Joan Baldwin at her Waltham Mills Studio.
I recently climbed the wide staircases of Waltham Mills to visit Joan Baldwin‘s second-floor corner studio. The former mill has tall ceilings and lots of light streaming in from big windows. Viewed on a sunny midday, the oil paintings were radiant. Evidence of past series, such as huge, vivid foliage scenes and surreal depictions of chairs leaned near corners and against walls, offering an appealing, low-key way to take in her work.

joan2
A sunny corner of Joan’s studio, including an earlier painting of upholstered furniture.
Baldwin’s Members’ Gallery show opening at Kingston Gallery on June 3, 2015 will feature framed works, but her previous Kingston exhibition transformed the Center Gallery with an installation where, like her current pieces, painted vistas set the scene. For the installation she cocooned dolls in sheer fabric, so hints of their round eyes and bald heads shone through, and hung them, with painted white sticks, from the ceiling. A curiosity about divergences between human life transitions and those of insects and other animals persists through her years of art-making.

Joan has been focusing on a mid-size series of what she calls terrariums, as they contain nature in three dimensions, and in some cases, the sculptural collage elements press right up to the interior of the Plexiglas. The diorama-like format incorporates her speciality, details of nature, rendered with spot-on accuracy, as the background. Next, she collages nests and cocoons onto the foliage and tangled networks of brush using items that by context aren’t immediately recognizable, such as beads and lightweight, lacy fibers. The collage elements complete the habitats where the lives of insects and birds emerge.

Hair Flies
Joan Baldwin, Hair Flies, oil on board, collage, 27 x 33 inches, 2014.
The terrariums seem to usher in new life, and so we could also refer to them as incubators. Areas with the cocoons and nests are at times frothy and slimy, and yet still beautiful. The materials that compose what in reality would be foam or young new wings are decorative in their original purposes of barrettes and other hair accessories. In past works, Baldwin has also collaged with hair from wigs. She says some people are at first repelled by the visual complexity that studs the foliage. Like much thought-provoking visual art, the works ask more questions than they can answer. Some questions may get under our skin, such as “Does it depict birth or death?” and “Is it forming or falling apart?” Rather than distancing or idealizing the life of small creatures, these works hone in on it.

Foggy Morning, 2010
Foggy Morning, 2014
Baldwin’s imagery is from photos she has taken of the wildlife on Pleasant Bay in Cape Cod, where she has a home. She explores, takes photographs, and then returns to the photos to paint from a combination of memory and her own vision. More than anything else, the photographs inspire her incubators. Rather than seeking photographic accuracy, she applies her own instinct of how to make clear, compelling scenes from spots that in lived experience may have been overlooked. Particularly adept at conjuring eye-catching foliage in oil, she balances bright and dark area–often enhancing the lightness–to depict the weedy, leafy paths by the salt water marshes. The effect is airy and lush, making the Cape Cod settings seem tropical.

Previously in her career, Baldwin illustrated furniture. She lived in North Carolina, near the immense furniture markets of High Point, where her editorial illustration work made a good living. Over time, Baldwin was not satisfied with direct furniture painting, and her couches and ottomans became more surreal. The furniture she painted was tiny for a time, scaled for dolls or ornamentation. In other canvases, a couch may stretch out, morphing into a hand, or stand in a wooded scene, nearly transparent, taking on the appearance the forest itself, foretelling her future artistic direction that is based in surreal meditations on natural processes.

-Shana Dumont Garr