Last week, my work arrived home from Florence Italy from the ‘American Dreamers’ show at Centro di Cultura Contemporanea at Palazzo Strozzi (affectionately, the Strozzina). And it made me realize that I have yet to really get any sort of images up about the show on this here blog….I have just been that busy, with a giant performance/installation project that came out of nowhere, and piles of planning for a 5 week residency in Iceland, collaborating with my family. I’ve spent that last few hours finally looking through all the images I took of this incredible adventure to Italy and thinking how lucky I am to have been invited by Bartholomew Bland, curator at The Hudson River Museum in NY, and what a privilege it was to work with all the staff at Strozzina and director Franziska Nori.
When the inimitable Mr. Bland proposed I participate in the show, he wrote
“…through the current financial crisis—a sense of social and economic safety have increasingly been put under strain. Today the “American Dream” seems to be in crisis. Yet a sense of optimism, a capacity for creative imagination, and the willingness to believe in positive outcomes remain crucial to the American self-image. A group of American artists of different generations reflect these impulses in their work, creating a sort of retreat from reality, a refuge in fantastical alternate worlds that are safe and, above all, controllable. These works, often realized with a subtle sense of irony or criticism towards the current society, are based on an aesthetics defined by fantasy and dream images, by fairytale creatures or images taken from the media, as well as actual parallel worlds enlarged or in miniature which refute the real world in favour of other realities, often made of splendour and success, even if just imagined.
For some artists, a fantasy world is their critique of contemporary society. Others, struggling to make sense of the real world, find it easier to create and then cope in an alternative one. A psychic break with reality or the creation of a better counter-reality becomes, for them, a form of agency.
Despite everything, everything, I cling to a sense of optimism, especially boarding a plane to Italy. Like many American artists, I have long heard of the greater importance placed on artists’ contributions to culture in Europe, and I can attest to being treated so much more like a valued professional than I am in my own city. Not to mention the creation of a meaty catalog I am still reading with a myriad of analyses of the American Dream mythology, and its crumbling reality (and some really stellar educational materials for young visitors!).
It has left me with still much to think about my role in this ‘dream’ mythology, how I have internalized ‘bootstrap’ fantasy and the resulting imagery in my artwork. It wasn’t until I was interviewed at the opening that I had even articulate into words what might be ‘American’ in my work; I have never intentionally placed my work in that context. But my hunger as an artist does rely on a sense of making amazing things with what I have around me, what I have available, what is discarded, with a definite reverence for traditional craft based in survival. There was a subtle thread of this running through the show…the sow’s ear into the silk purse, which seemed to counterbalance other dystopian currents. I found it striking to have examined parts of myself that I hold dear to be chalked up to my American-ness, particularly because I imagine my work to be grounded in narratives and archetypes that are so much older. But maybe that right there is the mirror being held up, the good-natured lack of self-awareness that seems to plague Americans and annoy the rest of the world. It left me questioning a great deal.
The installation I created was a reworking and an expansion of other installations from a 3 year period, giving me the opportunity to bring to the surface other themes in installations I have already done and to see my work as a continuum rather than separate compartments. In a very long thin gallery in the Pallazzo’s former wine cellar, with crossing masonry arches for a ceiling, I built a meandering path between two opposite states, that of a deep black lunar image and a glittering bright reflective solar experience, with a shadowing earthly pathway of greenery between, like both the cloying jungle and underwater depth of a kelp forest.
I called it “Cynosura” , which I believe is the Greek word for the North Star/Polaris, from when before the star was the pole star. I named this pathway this because the North Star has been and still is used for Celestial Navigation, which uses both the moon and the sun to navigate around the globe. ‘Cynosure’ is now used as a word to describe something that is constant, unchangeable, as a contrast to our fast and ephemeral human lives and concerns. But the pole star actually shifts over time, because like us, the stars are in flux as well, just on a larger scale. So when ‘Cynosura’ was named so, after a nymph, the star was not the pole star used as a constant, but now it is. So even when trying to describe something as “unchangeable” we can’t seem to do it.
Cynosura seems apt for this passage experience, which presented two opposite celestial realms, and a journey through a third transitory realm. In actuality, they are not opposite but part of a greater whole celestial realm. They are only perceived as opposites by human experience because of how we experience them traveling on our little earth. What we perceive as transitory, the lush greenery of a single season, is actually cyclical, perpetually happening again and again, just as stars are born again and again and cycle and die as well.