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The most exciting exhibit we saw in conjunction with the Society of American Mosaic Artist’s (SAMA) annual conference in Tacoma, WA last April was Transposition, a site-specific group show mounted at INScape – a former Immigration and National Services Building (INS) now repurposed as an arts and cultural enclave.
Curated by participating artists Jo Braun, Kate Jessup and Kelley Knickerbocker, Transposition asked the 15 invited artists to consider the “liminal” nature of both the historical use of the building and the state of the mosaic medium. We’ll confess that the use of the word “liminal” in the Prospectus sent us to our Merraim Webster where we found the following definition: 3) of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.
Ah. The elegant connection between the building and the medium was now obvious. Just as the individuals who passed through these ocher-tiled walls were between the designations of “immigrant”, “deportee” and “citizen”, so the mosaic medium is tossed between the categories of “art” and “craft.” Add to that “the metaphors of artistic practice as a ‘journey’ and humanity as a ‘mosaic’”, as the Prospectus put it, and what you have is an opportunity for an extraordinarily smart and engaging exhibit.
We climbed the three floors to the exhibition with anticipation . . .
. . . and were not disappointed. The show was smart. It was engaging. It was also exciting, illuminating and a great representation of the “state of the art” in the Americas. What a joy.
Difficult to capture on camera, the exhibit space was essentially a long corridor that ran along one side of the building with windows on one side and doors to offices on the other. It was a palpably oppressive space, still redolent of the fear and uncertainty that marks it as “The Ellis Island of the West”. Several artists made brilliant use of both the psychic and visual aspects of the site.
Works were displayed on top of radiators, window sills, and floors and were often hung to incorporate permanent, utlitarian fixtures. What could have been constrictive was often revelatory.
Most appreciated by this viewer was the curators’ requirement that the artists supply “substantive statements that link their work to the topic and provide context for viewers.” Hallelujah. A full frontal experience.
What follows are what we saw as highlights of the exhibition – images, passages from the accompanying Artist Statement and our thoughts. A full list of the 15 participating artists is at the end of the post.
Jim Bachor – Super-Realistic Snack Chip Series
We’re a huge fan of Jim Bachor, a Chicago-based artist who uses classic ancient Roman motifs, in particular the Unswept Floor, to opine on modern day consumer conundrums. His Meat Series garnered a Juror’s Award in this year’s Mosaic Arts International and this 3-work series is very Bachorian. From his Artist Statement:
My work frequently transposes ancient mosaic techniques to the present. Whereas the subject matter of ancient mosaics tends to be religious, geometric, or still life representations of fresh, everyday foodstuffs, I’ve displaced the latter with contemporary junk food, the bane of modern times.
In this series I further pushed the transposition of the medium’s permanence by literally incorporating the subject matter into the piece. Each mosaic is set into mortar containing one powdered serving size of the snack chip depicted. Years from now, viewers will not only see a representation of a Cheeto, but will also be in the presence of actual Cheetos.
Enjoy an unhealthy snack without gaining weight. For eternity. – Jim Bachor
Jo Braun – Rules Broken #1
Jo Braun, one of Transposition’s curators, is all about exploring and exploiting The Rules – those classically applied to the mosaic medium and those she imposes on herself. Braun was selected as one of MAN’s eight Exhibition in Print Artists (EIIP) artists for 2011. EIP jurors Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings lauded Braun’s work as “experimental, coherent, enquiring and technically adept.” She also had a work in SAMA’s Mosaic Arts International 2013.
A look at Braun’s rules for Rules Arbitrarily Applied, No. 2
And the completed mosaic.
In Islamic mosaic art, the Divine is thought to manifest Itself in orderly, mathematical, geometric mosaic patterns. But any do-it-yourself homeowner knows that even the most straightforward tile job requires a fair amount of intuitive fudge-factor for the finished work to look square and balanced. Without unspoken assumptions about how to interpret and apply mathematical rules, their excessively consistent application can wreak as much havoc as following no rules at all.
“Rules Arbitrarily Applied No. 2″ transposes the grid-based geometric process of tile work to a contemporary easel mosaic where unspoken assumptions about rule application trump the rules themselves. Does a different sort of Divine manifest Itself in the quixotic, smart-ass, flagrant manipulations of rules? Do Order and Pattern prevail anyway, notwithstanding our petty, reactionary attempts to create them ourselves? – Jo Braun
Samantha Holmes with Guilia Alecci– After Loreto
Our favorite moment in the exhibit, After Loreto, was achingly poignant. Small, crudely constructed house-like shapes with wings were strewn across a radiator and floor around a window that faced a security-fenced exercise yard used by INS inmates – a reminder that the building was both welcoming portal and detention center.
There was great power in After Loreto for us – we gasped out loud when we discovered these forlorn objects scattered around like so many dead house flies whose attempts at escape through a window had been futile. How many immigrants who walked these halls failed in their quest for a chance at a new life?
From Holmes’ Artist Statement:
The house of the Madonna of Loreto is said to have been carried by angels from Jerusalem to Italy. After Loreto springs from our experience of living without foundations, split between different countries and cultures. Faced with fluctuating notions of home, world, and space, it becomes necessary to “inhabit” places by imagination alone, an act which enables us to understand ourselves and our relation to the world. After Loreto speaks to the difficulty of making a home in the contemporary world, where miracles are in decline and the angels do not arrive house in hand.
Each wing is an attempt at completion: materials bound together and fused to the proper form, but lacking lightness, balance, flight. The houses rest at odd angles, wings touching the ground on which they would hope to settle, denying them stable foundations. – Samantha Holmes
A “citizen of the world” herself moving frequently between Italy and the US, Holmes has explored the effects of transiency in her own life in a number of previous works including Unspoken 10.22.10 – 07. 07.10 which won the prestigious Young Artists and Mosaic (GAEM) Award in 2011 and was just acquired by the prestigious Museo de Arte della Cite di Ravenna (MAR).
Kate Jessup – Saltwater Frost
Holmes’ work held us earthbound. Jessup gave us wings.
Saltwater Frost comprised a series of objects strewn around a window. Here was lightness and air – a feeling of possibility and future. From Jessup’s Artist Statement:
Saltwater frost flowers, the phenomenological inspiration for this piece, arise on the surface of the polar oceans when the air temperature drops quickly below that of the water. As the water freezes, super concentrated salts coalesce in growing frost spires and bloom into fields of ‘flowers’. The bodies that form — liquids transposed into solids — are born out of a spontaneous lurch into inhospitable new territory, and the result is an impossible, jagged and yearning beauty.
The halls of this building still seem to ache with the yearning of those who have passed through it. This piece is both a remembrance and a reassurance that we all still long for the same things: community, solidarity, exploration. Like the frost, a mass of particles frozen together, this mosaic is built without a substrate. Forcing the tesserae, the individuals, to bond directly to one another in order to create their community. – Kate Jessup
We very much appreciated the yin and yang of Holmes and Jessup and wonder if perhaps they hadn’t collaborated together in creating these works for Transposition; Jessup was one of the three curators. Whether coincidence of collaboration, the effect was spot-on for the intent of the exhibit. We very much liked Jessup’s Tense Twinships in Mosaic Arts International 2013 and she, like Samantha Holmes, has just had a mosaic acquired by the MAR. We’re looking forward to profiling her on MAN very soon.
Kelley Knickerbocker – Vulnerable/Variable
The sheer beauty of Vulnerable/Variable came as a sort of shock.
Masses of white roses and clusters of pearly barnacles in tide pools came to mind and provided a welcome relief from the intensity of the exhibit.
Knickerbocker’s unconventional tesserae were the product of an accident in her studio which prompted a train of thought about the evolution of our psyches.
This work is the intentional transposition of a meaningful accident. I had over-diluted black cement slurry, and grabbed a paper towel to absorb the excess water. As I watched the white fibers absorb a shadow of wet cement and black pigment along with the water, they prompted a comparison to our individual psyches.
Over our lifetimes, we’re inevitably shaded by the conscious and unconscious absorption of our particular slurry of situational variables—parenting, belief structures, education, culture, economy, geography. We’re vulnerable, collapsing at times under the weight of saturation, yet also surprisingly resilient, supported by aggregate patterns that are revealed as our variously shaded selves move amongst and nestle against one another. – Kelley Knickerbocker
Knickerbocker, who was the third curator for Transposition, is an artist who is constantly moving her ouevre forward through fearless innovation and exploration of both materials and techniques. She is an excellent representative for what could be said is the defining quality of contemporary mosaic in North America – a sort of entrepreneurial self-taught approach to the medium that is unfettered by the traditions that are the foundation for European mosaic practice. This was a point made in the lengthy prospectus for Transposition and is certainly grist for a future explorative article on MAN. Knickerbocker also had a work in Mosaic Arts International 2013.
Marcelo de Melo – Infectious Narratives
Marcelo de Melo has been characterized by some as The Bad Boy of Mosaic which, we are certain, delights him. Previously on MAN we wrote: “(deMelo’s work) is often crude, awkward and somewhat difficult to look at. It is also edgy, thought provoking and very clear in its intent. Marcelo de Melo has a voice and he’s not afraid to use it.” Infectious Narratives, therefore, came as a bit of a surprise.
We found this grouping of sequencing trays used for biological sample testing to be oddly elegant but rest assured – it is no less thoughtful and thought-provoking than his previous work.
To call Infectious Narratives a mosaic work may seem like a far stretch. However, it is based on my personal engagement with the medium and my compulsive attitude towards it. This work deals with a twofold meaning of the term ‘culture’: microbial or viral culture, and culture as human endeavor. The sequencing trays formally serve as frameworks and allude to a laboratory setting. At the same time, the historic INS building can be seen as a metaphorical gateway: from this point, narratives from around the world were being spread into the United States. Considering both aspects, Infectious Narratives is an exploration of the theme of contamination – chemistry and memesis. – Marcelo de Melo
While initially puzzled, after reading the Artist Statement we were strongly drawn into these objects, searching through the bits of paper, ceramic, plastic and rubber at the bottom of each sample well for something that looked even vaguely like a little bit of “us.” It was a very moving experience, actually. Could it be that de Melo has a soft side?
We think this exhibit, which closed May 25th, was just terrific. It was smart. It was art. It was a triumph. Bravo to the curators for the intelligence, rigor and patience it took to produce such a great show and bravo to the artists who rose to the challenge of making smart art.
More, please. – Nancie
Transposition Participating Artists
- Lynn Adamo
- Jim Bachor
- Jo Braun
- Karen Dimit
- Sophie Drouin
- Cynthia Fisher
- Yulia Hanansen
- Samantha Holmes
- Kate Jessup
- Sonia King
- Kelley Knickerbocker
- Michael Kruzich
- Rachel Sager
- Marcelo de Melo
- Erin Pankratz-Smith
Thanks to Cindi Buhrig for the use of the photographs noted; all other images by the author.