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Flatlanders and Surface Dwellers at 516 ARTS: An Interview with Lea Anderson

516 ARTS, a non-profit museum-style gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is led by Suzanne Sbarge, Executive Director, and Rhiannon Mercer, Associate Director. Since 2006, the exhibition program has centered on contemporary issues and innovative approaches to art-making, with supportive educational programs that delve into the visual and literary arts, music, and film. They are known for their 516 WORDS poetry series, workshops, lectures and panel discussions, and public projects–most recently city murals–all of which continue their mission to cultivate arts and culture in Albuquerque.

516 ARTS has also been an important incubator for broader city-wide (and beyond) special projects and collaborations with arts organizations and museums. A great example was the 2009 Land Art program they spearheaded, in which over 200 artists and 25 organizations participated. The event included a tour of Charles Ross’ Star Axis; the exhibit Dispersal/Return: Land Arts of the American West at the University of New Mexico Art Museum; the exhibition Experimental Geography curated by Nato Thompson, a panel discussion with Matthew Coolige, Katie Holten, Lize Mogel, and Lea Rekow at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History (moderated by Bill Gilbert); and a bus tour with the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Each of these, and many others, examined art, land, and their intersection with community.

516 ARTS also organized, in partnership with The University of New Mexico and the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, ISEA 2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness (the 18th International Symposium for Electronic Art), which was a regional collaboration involving over 100 partnering organizations across disciplines, reviewed in depth here. These projects organized by 516 ARTS have contributed significantly to the cultural landscape of the region, to countless individual artists, and to the Albuquerque community at large.

Flatlanders and Surface Dwellers, running March 9th to June 1st, 2013, is the latest exhibition at 516 ARTS, guest curated by Lea Anderson. The exhibition examines how contemporary artists explore surface in their art-making, which is broadly defined by the twenty-four artists included in the exhibit.

Cristina de los Santos examines the surface quality of books, tipping traditional approaches to book presentation and functionality on end. Jessica Kennedy’s painting Fusiform explores philosophical perspectives of utopia through surface pattern, paint layers, and symmetry. Dealing with surface, or rather the absence of surface, Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky teamed up to press objects into a continuous roll of aluminum foil, creating one long silvery strand of impressions.

Several pieces bring social issues to the surface: Jennifer Cawley’s wallpaper pieces, For CongoFor Bosnia, and For Darfur, for Sudan are commentaries on warfare and its gruesome affect on communities. Noelle Mason’s Ground Control (Mexicali/Calexico) is a tapestry depicting a satellite image of the border between Mexicali and Calexico, highlighting the disparity between these two cities. Nomadik Harvest Dress, by Nicole Dextras, is a wearable architectural garden-shelter that creates a tactile surface using indigenous, edible New Mexico plants; based on the idea of a yurt, the mobile piece is equipped with a stove, and can be used as a tent.

Lea Anderson received her MFA from the University of New Mexico and lives and work in Albuquerque. She curates exhibitions and regularly shows her own work. Recent exhibitors of her work include L.A. Artcore, the University of Mary Washington, the Cultural Center in Bangkok, Chiang Mai University Gallery in Thailand, and the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe.

The following is an in-depth conversation with Lea Anderson about the artists exhibiting in Flatlanders and Surface Dwellers.


Sage Dawson: What was your approach to selecting pieces for Flatlanders and Surface Dwellers?

Lea Anderson: In curating the show, with support from 516 Arts, I invited artists whose work I was interested in and who were exploring a distinct language of surface. I was hoping to be surprised and learn from this experience, and when a call for entries was added to seek additional artists, I expected to discover novel and innovative material forms. But I was blown away! The work that ultimately emerged became much more reflective of incredibly personal, political, and philosophical surface expressions. As an artist I was deeply inspired.

SD: Does the artwork, or exhibition theme itself, relate to your own artistic practice?

LA: Surface plays a significant role in my work. Because I work abstractly and organically, signifiers such as texture, color, and form (and the interaction of those components) are essential. I bank on a reactive response to those ingredients.

SD: The novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott loosely inspired the exhibition. What was Abbott’s philosophical approach to structure and surface?

LA: Abbott wrote satirically about an imaginary world of two dimensions, which was absolutely flat, hence Flatland. In this world, shapes (such as the main character, “A humble Square”) could only be seen as lines because they could never be seen from above or below. However, the Square eventually travels to Spaceland, the world of three-dimensions, and discovers many secrets happening within Flatland that he could only observe from above. Through the creation of Flatland as an actual place, Abbott seems to be attempting to visualize the differences between dimensions while also using this arena to invent a social satire rife with sexism, class hierarchy, and political intrigue. I was fascinated with the idea that artists can inhabit the two-dimensional realm of Flatland metaphorically (the artistic surface providing us with enormous expressive potential) yet as humans we can only physically experience surfaces from Spaceland, or from outside Flatland, because we live in the realm of the third (and ostensibly the fourth) dimension.

SD: Surface then, whether hovering nearer to flat or three-dimensional, was interpreted in a wide range of ways by the artists participating in the exhibition.

LA: Yes, for example, the work of the artist team Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky comes to mind. They’ve been making installations using aluminum foil for several years. They traveled to Albuquerque from San Francisco and Toronto, Ontario respectively, to create Anchor on site. One of their works emerged as a cluster of silvery objects molded from one continuous piece of aluminum foil. Their labor-intensive molding process resulted in what looks like a mass of silver colored objects: scissors, silver-plated heirloom hand mirrors, an entire shopping cart, coins, forks, hood ornaments, etc. However, the objects are absent. The shell of foil that was pressed to the surfaces of these objects is the only evidence of their presence. A range of meanings follows: Our personal and emotional relationship to material objects and what they represent to us. Our reaction when we realize that these impressed surfaces are empty, and that a trace is all we have. The metaphoric surface of the objects as materialistic shells, devoid of meaning, suggesting our memories of them or associations with them is what holds relevance.

Weppler and Mahovsky confided that they became a team while working in a factory job together, producing assembly line products. Ironically (and yet appropriately) this factory-based teamwork skill is the method through which they synchronize their movements in the making of unique installations from replications of objects.

SD: Turning to pieces more focused on the physicality of surface and materials, I think of Jessica Kennedy‘s piece Fusiform, as well as works by Melissa Gwyn and Blake Gibson.

LA: In very different ways, all three of these artists address the surface language of painting. Jessica Kennedy layers, peels away, and intersects three distinct layers of patterned, organic paint material in an approximately symmetrical wall sized diptych on panel. Her piece Fusiform integrates animal, human, and vegetable forms, with the goal being to create harmony and describe a philosophical utopia.

SD: So then, Kennedy is using surface and symmetry to suggest utopia?

LA: I would interpret it as symbolic. It’s depicts a synchronicity and balance in the interactions of these entities. What that would actually look like is impossible to imagine, so her version seems more code-like.

Melissa Gwyn uses innovative techniques in oil paint (such as squeezing out the moist innards of semi-dry oil paint blisters) to create decadent, pseudo-rococo egg forms strongly reminiscent of Faberge. In works such as Ovoid Clutch, these visual indulgences address issues of desire and repulsion, confusing the two in a clash of associations.

In 1.8.13, Blake Gibson knowingly comments on abstract expressionism by creating slashed, gooey, and frantic surface marks. Though action painting could be considered a throwback, this approach seems to parallel our culture’s increasing need for instant gratification, and the resulting frustration when this need is not satisfied, an appropriately contemporary update to a primal, reactive state.

SD: I agree that his piece seems like a comment on abstract expressionism. Then, I wonder if he feels his work is performative?

LA: His past work has included many performances, most involving an almost violent throwing, pouring, and splashing of paint. I was actually surprised that his final submission was paint on canvas. However conventional a canvas is, his marks are aggressive, alive, not fussy, and evidence of an act.

SD: Cristina De Los Santo‘s approach to surface in her piece turns book-making on end. She takes the form, one often in-step with methodic approaches to binding, gluing, scale, and presentation, and veers it towards non-traditional. Would you even call her piece a book?

LA: Her previous work was incredibly organic, textured, layered, even delicate. This new piece is hard-edged, planar, and consists of rectangular strips of handmade books that climb the wall and create a grid. While many may not guess her motives, the materials and their arrangement are auto-biographical. Cristina recently moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Chicago, and has been creating handmade books for a local business (in addition to her artistic practice). Her intimacy with these materials sparked her inspiration to work with book-making. Since moving from New Mexico to a large city, she has shifted her focus from loose, organic forms to more structured, akin to Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. In her piece, though, movement is suggested by the openness of negative space between the shapes, rather than being a more closed system like Mondrian’s.

SD: A favorite piece of mine is Steve Budington‘s Lines of Vision Re-Drawn (4) which references medical charts and includes diagrams of surgical eye procedures.

LA: Yes, Lines of Vision Re-Drawn (4) is a digitally printed piece consisting of a vintage eye surgery chart pierced by a star-like negative shape from an optically complex RGB pattern. Budington describes the cut out shape as being surgically modified, implying that the act of cutting into and piercing the surface of the paper is central to his concept. Personally, I interpreted this work as a commentary on the somewhat uncomfortable experience of looking at an optically charged pattern. It seemed to illustrate the physical sensation of inner-eye vibration in response to surface information.

SD: Then, there is Noelle Mason‘s fiber-based piece Ground Control (Mexicali/Calexico), which tackles social and political issues, as does Jennifer Cawley‘s wallpaper piece.

LA: Noelle Mason’s Ground Control (Mexicali/Calexico) is a gigantic, wall-sized tapestry. The imagery is from a satellite image of the aerial view of the border between Mexicali and Calexico, showing the geographic disparity between the two regions. While the imagery depicts the surface of the earth, providing one thematic connection, the surface of the tapestry itself acts as a ground for political activism. Mason commissioned the making of this tapestry from a Mexican family who specializes in this textile art, and paid them the equivalent of what it would cost this family to be smuggled across the border.

SD: We’re venturing into radical cartography projects: Mason makes the invisible, in this case disparity across a border, visible through mapping. Why make a tapestry?

LA: The project became a political act when she involved the family and the cost of their escape. The surface of the tapestry is rich, plush, almost decadent in nature, drawing the viewer in, then demonstrating clearly the contrast from one area near the border to the other, an important visual experience for those who have had little experience traveling across this economic and cultural divide and seeing the stark differences. I should mention that Mason also has several small embroidered works in the show depicting infra-red heat imagery of immigrants in various dangerous transitions across the border, for example hiding in the back of trucks. She could make these works herself, but her activist role would be diluted and diminished.

There are three walls in the gallery covered with Jennifer Cawley’s wallpaper pieces, For Congo; For Darfur, for Sudan; and For Bosnia. Colorful, vibrant patterns reveal, upon closer inspection, a darker theme. AK-47’s, imposing male figures, fallen female figures, diamonds, and so on, are depicted on her wallpaper. These patterns address the issue of rape within the countries that are historically affected by this violence. Cawley explains her use of wallpaper as a social commentary on the tendency to let this issue drift into the background behind other issues related to warfare. Yet rape is still there, repeating itself again and again, a literal pattern of human behavior accompanied by a continued pattern of human avoidance of the issue.

SD: Why do you think Cawley used saturated colors and patterns to address such dark content?

LA: In the same way Noelle Mason uses the enticing surface and color in her tapestry, Jennifer Cawley pulls the viewer in with pattern. There is no hint of darkness, despair, or violence from a distance. Instead she uses fuchsia, sunny yellow, and turquoise, opposite colors associated with horror. She pulls a bait-and-switch, drawing viewers in, then revealing victimization. I think it would be hard to deliver with complete disclosure.

Images courtesy of 516 Arts.

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