Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bigger on the Inside

"Protosystems" installed at Transformer.
After a couple of months of non-stop research, experimentation, and late nights in the studio (also, countless carafes of coffee), my new piece "Protosystems" is installed at Transformer in DC and is on view November 2 to November 30, 2013. With the help of a timer, the motorized installation is running 8am to midnight, Tuesday through Saturday.

At the time I was invited to create work for the gallery's storefront window space, I was reading about asteroids and the variety of efforts, scientific and commercial, to capture an asteroid and bring it closer to Earth. It occurred to me to imagine the possibility of an asteroid being captured for artistic purposes. I wondered, "What if Transformer acquired an asteroid?" That thought led me to imagine a visual narrative, inspired by science-fiction films, that I could then take apart and reconstruct.

In reading about asteroids, I noticed how we can talk about them as if they are "objects" to be acquired and as if they are "worlds" to be explored. They are just the right size to straddle the concepts of "object" and "world"; it is as if a person could simultaneously stand outside and inside of an asteroid.  I tried to present this ambiguous scale relationship by including a large-ish asteroid in the piece (it is roughly 2 cubic feet). Seen inside Transformer's storefront, it is presented as though the gallery acquired the object from outer space and brought it down to Earth for passersby to see. I also made a small, scale model of the gallery (about an inch tall) and placed it on the sculpted asteroid with one of the piece's cameras pointed at it.  It can be seen on the third television monitor from the left, sitting under a transparent dome as if it were the first art gallery in outer space. ART. IN. SPAAAAACE! (Sorry, that had to be done.)
Work in progress documentation of the Transformer model.
One of my goals with Protosystems was to create an opportunity for visitors to project themselves into space. Stephanie Booth, a DC based artist who is a friend and fellow GMU graduate, was kind enough to write about this aspect of my piece on her blog perstef. In the post, she writes that the installation"... plays with (the) possibility of infinite space while in confinement." I find it very helpful to hear others' words about my artwork (and, of course, I am always deeply grateful when someone takes the time to respond to the things I make) because they can provide a fresh perspective, identify problem areas, or spark a fresh approach. In this case, the words succinctly sum up a theme that I try to articulate myself: the attempt to use the imagination to create a vast world within the confines of a small physical space. In other words, I am trying to make something bigger on the inside than on the outside. Perhaps the most captivating presentation of this idea is found in the time-space machines used by the Gallifreyans in the British science fiction television series "Doctor Who", which, as you may have guessed, I grew up watching.

Friday, October 18, 2013

An Experiment

Back in July, after consultations with trusted mentors, I decided to take a semester off from teaching and dedicate all my time to working in the studio. The past three months have given me the opportunity to learn how to structure my working hours and what I need to do to stay motivated and productive. Extended time alone in my studio has revealed strengths and weaknesses in my approach to art-making.

During this time, I have also been training to run my first marathon at the end of October.  Learning to run long distances has taught me new ways to manage my studio practice.  For example, to keep from getting bored while running, it is a good idea to change pace--in fact, although it seems counter-intuitive, it is helpful to speed up when boredom or tiredness hits.  Running faster for a mile or two before easing back into a slower pace makes the slower pace seem easier by comparison and gives me confidence that I'm not yet at the end of my resources. The approach of speeding up works also for me in the studio when I feel bored or tired of some activity, whether rendering form or sanding wood.  If I can get myself to work faster, to infuse my activity with energy from the whole body instead of just the wrist or elbow, my interest is often renewed and I sometimes surprise myself with just how quickly a task can be accomplished.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson from marathon training that applies to art-making is knowing that the race can be finished.  At this point in my marathon training, the farthest I have run is 22 miles.  Even though I know that, on race day, I will still have 4.2 miles more to go once I reach the 22 mile marker, I am confident that I can reach the finish line.  Although this lesson is an obvious one to apply to making art, it is a difficult one for me experience emotionally.  I struggle to believe that I can finish a new project in a way that will be successful (whatever that means!).  I am dogged by feelings of insecurity and a lack of confidence in my decisions and artistic abilities.  My hope for myself over the next few months of time alone in my studio is that I can apply my experience of running and finishing a marathon to my daily art practice, confident that, although the work is difficult and the outcome uncertain, I can finish strong.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reflections on Einstein's Space

I am finally reading “How the Universe Got its Spots” by astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin.  Written as a series of diary entries, Levin mingles her reflections on the nature of space and time with personal stories.

At times, Levin’s personal and theoretical reflections merge in poignant ways.  Describing a series of moves that left her feeling untethered, Levin writes, “We keep moving.  Moving, moving, moving.”  Maybe Levin is simply conveying a feeling of unease that accompanies frequent relocations, but it’s hard not to imagine she is also describing a greater reality: Einstein’s rejection of any fixed frame of reference.  In Einstein’s model, no one is tethered; nothing is fixed.

As I reflect on Levin’s description of Einstein’s theory of gravity, two concepts seem to be at the heart of his description of reality: continuity and contact.  Before Einstein’s theories, Newton’s mathematical model was the best explanation of the effects of gravity. In Newton’s model, two masses fall towards one another, attracted to each other across empty space.  By contrast, Einstein imagines space as a geometrical structure that is bent, curved, and re-shaped by mass and energy.  Space is contiguous, like a bed sheet, or water in a swimming pool.  In Newton’s model, space is nothing.  In Einstein’s model, space is something, and, in fact, objects are always in contact with space.  Continuity.  Contact.  Einstein’s model of the nature of reality evokes a more intimate relationship between matter and space than Newton’s model.

Now I am wondering how to work with the conception of space as a continuous medium that connects everything in the universe....

Thursday, March 28, 2013

This Week at GMU

Stephanie Booth is having her thesis show this week (March 25 to 29) in the main gallery of the Art and Design Building at George Mason University. I met Stephanie when I was working on my MFA at George Mason and I am excited to see the culmination of her work.

One of the themes Stephanie's thesis explores is the effect of past information on identity. Stephanie dug deep into family genealogy and history and, as one would expect, uncovered surprising stories about people related to her. Her source material includes family photos and text of family history, but often the work required Stephanie to place herself into other family members' identities, as though she were an actor playing a role. Sometimes the "characters" are endearing or benevolently powerful and other times cruel or inhuman, in other words, the full range of family relations is on display.

Stephanie uses human hair throughout the show, both as a medium (yes, that embroidery is made with real human hair) and a metaphor for identity and lineage. She employs photography, embroidery, and video installation to present her exploration of identity and family history with the detached aesthetic of a forensic scientist, and this cool presentation is the perfect counterpoint to her strategy of including herself in some of the photos and videos.

There is a whisper that accompanies the large video installation and it fills the gallery as I look at the backs of heads in a series of photographs. I almost feel that I am surrounded by ghosts and as I leave the gallery, I remember that family is family, whether I like it or not.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ideal Lunar Landscapes

"Ideal Lunar Landscapes" is the title of my solo show at Rivermont Studio. The title comes from the caption below one of the plates from the 1874 book "The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite" written by James Carpenter and James Nasmyth. I was introduced to the book during graduate school and it has been on my mind ever since. I like how Nasmyth created the images of lunar landscapes by building and photographing plaster models based on his observations of the Moon seen through his telescope.

Some time after making "Walk-in Crater", I realized that I had stumbled into the territory of landscape painting. I began to re-read the history of landscape painting, reacquainting myself with the variety of ways of seeing the relationship between humans and nature. When I was offered an opportunity to show my work at Rivermont Studio, I decided I wanted to make a series of paintings and contraptions using a language of landscape painting to picture the Moon. But which language to choose? How might a landscape painter make images of new worlds and new frontiers?  

My palette for painting lunar landscapes begins to look like a landscape itself.
I soon settled on drawing inspiration from Albert Bierstadt's large-scale paintings of the American western frontier. Part of the appeal of Bierstadt's paintings is the fact that they are fictions. Even though Bierstadt twice accompanied expeditions to the west and saw the geography there first-hand, the finished paintings are composite images based on sketches, embellished with his mastery of portraying light and atmosphere.  

Bierstadt's paintings of the west offer a distinctly American way of looking at land and space. Portraying U.S. westward expansion as a pre-ordained inevitability, Bierstadt's paintings function as trophies for the railroad companies who commissioned Bierstadt to make images of the land conquered by the Transcontinental Railroad ("Donner Lake From the Summit", 1873 is a good example). The paintings also function as advertisements for tourists, showing the view that could be seen from the comfort of a train.  

My new paintings and contraptions combine the approaches of Nasmyth and Bierstadt, two masters of constructing landscapes. The images of the Moon in my exhibition are based on images of Nasmyth's plaster models of the lunar surface rather than images of the Moon from NASA. Elements from Bierstadt's landscape paintings are incorporated into the Nasmyth images to investigate how an American vision of land and space might be applied to new frontier lands such as the Moon.   

"Ideal Lunar Landscapes" is on view at Rivermont Studio, February 1 -- March 10, 2013.  More information about the gallery can be found under "News" on my website.

"Panorama of an Ideal Lunar Landscape" under construction.