Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog


Tasha Lewis’s Postmodern Taxidermy

Tasha Lewis, "Swarm," in situ at the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

Tasha Lewis, “Swarm,” in situ at the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

At the top of the grand staircase in the Wetherill Mansion, a stream of fabric butterflies carefully pinned to the walls seems to spill out of the galleries. Fittingly, the work is entitled “Swarm” and is part of Tasha Lewis’s installation for A Curious Nature. Lewis created these brilliant indigo butterflies using cyanotype printing, a method originally developed in the 1800s to produce blueprints. Entering the gallery, visitors see the technique in a number of other pieces–“stuffed” animals, many that same brilliant blue, entangled in plexiglass planes and bell jars, as well as fabric-covered cardboard animal skulls, some embellished with beads, that hang upon the wall like so many trophies. What emerges from the grouping is a clear allusion to the 19th-century preoccupations of photography and taxidermy that is simultaneously rooted in our present technological and social moment.

Tasha Lewis, "Fox," 2016.

Tasha Lewis, “Fox,” 2016.

Lewis (B.A., Swarthmore, English Literature and Studio Art, 2012) started out as a photographer. Seeking new ways to develop film, such as Van Dyke brown prints and the aforementioned cyanotype, she began to print on cotton. One of her earliest mixed-media works using cyanotype on cloth is “Fox;” it also remains one of her most gripping. The fox in question is partially submerged in a plexiglass box. Suspended between freedom and entrapment, looking simultaneously at rest and defeated, the figure invites me to project my own stories onto it while still challenging any given narrative. With its closed eyes, downturned head, and languid pose, the fox brings to mind my own pet; its facial expression could be seen on any domestic cat or dog, those wild things we attempt to train and keep at home. Lewis is posing questions of agency–can the animal be alive and escape? While these works, including “Fox,” riff on taxidermy, they move beyond it as no creature is fully imprisoned by its glass cage.

Tasha Lewis, "Falcon," 2013.

Tasha Lewis, “Falcon,” 2013.

Lewis’s use of glass and plexiglass points to the practice of taxidermy and to those institutions that frequently housed specimens–museums. Although variations of the technique were practiced in the ancient world, taxidermy as we know it came to prominence in the early 1800s; over time scientific approaches and accuracy became increasingly important. It is hardly surprising that the same century saw the foundation of major museums–the American Museum of Natural History in New York city was founded in 1869 and Philadelphia’s own Academy of Natural Sciences was established even earlier, in 1812. As humans sought to document and control the natural world, they put it behind glass and invited the public in. Yet Lewis’s animals are only partially contained, and the use of glass introduces an additional awareness of space. It reminds me of the glass plates so often employed in scientific endeavors–microscope slides, sample management, display, and dissection. And indeed, dissections of a sort are occurring before the audience–few animals in Lewis’s installation can dream of being whole and unmarred; nearly all are divided or reduced to pieces of their former selves, whether the stuffed animals or the animal skulls adorning the walls, whose antlers actually detach from the skull. The sole exceptions are the ravens circling the carcass, crafting dissections of their own.  

Tasha Lewis, "Carcass," 2015.

Tasha Lewis, “Carcass,” 2015, in situ at the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

And yet, despite all the references to the 19th century, Lewis’s work is firmly placed in the present, particularly in terms of access and open sourcing. Much of the material employed for the sculptures is readily available, such as cotton, cardboard (used to make inner frames), and cord. Internet users can watch Lewis transform these mean materials into art on her website, where she documents her process with videos, photos, and descriptions. “Swarm” was initially developed as a traveling sculpture, with the butterflies moving with Lewis to be photographed in various cities. This spawned a collaborative project entitled Swarm the World, wherein people across the globe would request these butterflies, install them in their own towns and then photograph them–the evidence of which can be seen on this tumblr page. Juxtaposing this idea of access with the animal sculptures raises an important question: is this why we seek to control nature and its creatures to begin with? We trap them in efforts to bring them closer, to see, touch, and enjoy? Lewis’s work reminds the audience of the challenge–to honor the wildness and wholeness too, even while holding it close.  

By Mary Kay Kaminski


Time’s Threads–Caitlin McCormack’s Art of Memory

Having graduated from the University of the Arts in 2010, Caitlin McCormack has been remarkably productive. Averaging about 25 group and solo shows a year, it’s impressive that McCormack has the time and energy to keep producing her intricate crochet creations. The works on view in A Curious Nature at the PAA were all made within the past year, and they speak the ways that McCormack continues to develop the techniques and themes of her art. In contrast to the rich, glossy coats of Linda Cordell’s glazed porcelain animals, McCormack explores shades of gray, channeling her memories of people and places through the distorted and fantastical crocheted bodies of imaginary creatures. For McCormack, animals function as an intermediary between us and our memories; they take forms that our human bodies cannot, express thoughts and feelings that human voices cannot. While McCormack’s work is deeply personal, her creatures have the power to evoke not only her memories, but ours, as well.

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Caitlin McCormack, “Bound, As It Were,” 2015.

Turning to the right as you enter the gallery are a pair of works–“Bound, As It Were” and “Obligatus”–that incorporate antique crocheted gloves, hinting at the ghostly presence of a woman. Upon learning that McCormack learned to crochet from her late grandmother, I find it hard not to see these gloves as a more specific evocation of loss, and of the function of crochet as an art of memory that is deeply personal.

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Caitlin McCormack, “Kindertide,” 2015.

McCormack has been gradually increasing the scale of her work–no mean feat given the intricacy of crochet as a technique. At 36 inches in length (over twice the length of most of her pieces), 2014’s “Kindertide” is both delicate and visceral. The hollow, bird-like bones of McCormack’s other creations here take on a disturbing solidity. There are few stray strings or fragments of found crochet to distract us. We are confronted with the skeleton of a large creature that seems both amphibian and mammalian, crushed beneath the glass. The density of string makes this work appear weighty, a creature of the physical world and not just of memory or imagination. McCormack explained that she counts each thread carefully, and that each repetitive working of the thread is an act of memory, a sort of secular rosary of crochet. The weight of the particular memory represented by “Kindertide” must be heavy indeed.

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Caitlin McCormack, “Mansion of Prodigies,” 2015.

Occupying a niche in the center of the gallery is another large-scale piece, “Mansion of Prodigies.” Consisting of a crocheted skeletal shark atop a chest of drawers, we are invited to interact with the piece, opening and closing its small drawers to peek at the tiny creatures inside. “Mansion of Prodigies” functions like a latter-day version of the cabinets of curiosities of Renaissance Europe, which were encyclopedic collections of scientific, artistic, and historical objects ranging from gemstones and fossils, to art and antiquities. McCormack’s creatures look like unclassified specimens from an unknown land. Pinned down as if to dissect and classify them, the creatures are contained in drawers labelled with cryptic words–“Electra,” “Aurora,” “Titus”–that only hint at the nature of their mysterious contents.

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Caitlin McCormack, “Loessborne,” 2016.

For all their intricacy, there’s something cinematic about McCormack’s work, each piece hinting at a larger narrative. The black boxes lined with black velvet look like miniature stage sets, the intricate strands of thread orchestrating the crocheted sculptures like puppets guided by the invisible hands of memory. This is particularly apparent in one of McCormack’s most recent works, which she created for this show–“Loessborne.” A play on words and ideas surrounding sorrow and loss, birth and bearing, we see two tiny figures, one hunched over the other one in an ambiguous pose that could suggest either love or violence. These two figures are framed underneath by a crocheted lace collar, and from above by a web of threads that extend in rigidly straight lines from a single pin. The linear geometry of the string seems to impose an unnatural restraint on the organic, curving forms of the crocheted figures, hinting at a tension not only between the two figures, but between these creatures and their environment or circumstances. While McCormack’s inspiration may come from personal memories, the intricacy of the technique and the ambiguity of the imagery draw us in, creating eerie stage sets for us to populate with our own memories, dreams, and desires.    

 

Caitlin McCormack’s work will be on display along with the other creatures of A Curious Nature through December 4, 2016. To read more about her work, check out her website.


Changing States–Linda Cordell’s Animal Figurines

Some of Linda Cordell’s figurines, assembled in a line-up before being arranged in the second floor galleries of the Art Alliance. From left to right: “Goat Drip,” “Pink Tumor,” “Foo Dogs,” “Slap Dog,” “Sanguinary,” and “Pugnacious.”

Liquid and solid, wet and dry, heavy and weightless, funny and frightening–Linda Cordell’s ceramic sculptures occupy a shifting middle ground between each of these binaries. The ten works the artist selected for A Curious Nature offer slightly surreal pairings of porcelain animals, such as dogs, squirrels, and even a bear, with pieces of domestic furniture. Cordell’s demented animal figurines are strangely at home in the setting of the Wetherill Mansion, a former private residence. While I cannot imagine Samuel Wetherill, for whom the mansion was built, owning one of Cordell’s figurines, perhaps he enjoyed the porcelain animal figurines produced by the famous Meissen factory in Germany throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as this Bolognese terrier made around 1900. Cordell takes the long tradition of saccharine animal figurines and turns it inside out, exposing the messy reality of animal bodies and the distorting effects of domestication.

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Figure of a Bolognese Terrier. Made ca. 1900 by the Meissen porcelain factory, Meissen, Germany. Original model by Johann Joachim Kändler, ca. 1750. From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Animals have figured prominently in porcelain production since the early eighteenth century, when porcelain was first produced in Europe in Meissen under the patronage of the Elector Prince of Saxony, Augustus the Strong. Together with more functional items for food service, the Meissen factory produced countless figurines depicting bucolic shepherds and shepherdesses, as well as floppy-eared dogs and other domestic animals. The subject matter of “uncivilized” people and animals contrasted with the precious medium of porcelain, known at the time as “white gold,” and with the abundant wealth and sophistication of the figurines’ owners. These porcelain “noble savages” can be seen as expressions of contemporary Enlightenment philosophical debates about the nature of humankind–are humans naturally depraved, making us little better than animals, as Hobbes would have it, or are we fundamentally moral creatures? While the meaning of what it is to be human has long been expressed through contrast with animals, Cordell’s figurines go beyond this anthropocentrism to suggest the very real effects of this thinking on the bodies of animals themselves.

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Detail of Linda Cordell, “Slap Dog.” Porcelain, wood, foam, resin, and paint.

Cordell’s animals convey a sense of frustration and even rage at the confines of domesticity, and their bodies are distorted by violent resistance, disfiguring disease, or bodily disintegration. Cordell achieves these effects through the skilled manipulation of materials. Most clay–earthenware and stoneware–is heavy, while porcelain was developed to be finer and lighter, with more plasticity and translucency. Cordell embraces these qualities, creating gravity-defying details like the flying drool in “Slap Dog.”

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Linda Cordell, “Goat Drip.” Porcelain, wood, foam, resin, paint. 26″ x 28″ x 13″.

Cordell also incorporates lightweight foam in some of her pieces, such as “Goat Drip.” Reddish colored resin pools on the table underneath the snarling animal, transmuted into bubbling foam as it moves through the wood to beneath the table. The brightly colored enamel strikes a discordant note against the muted white of the furniture and the pale green celadon glaze of the porcelain figures. The ensemble of resin, foam, and porcelain blurs the boundaries between liquid and solid, still subject to gravity and yet resisting it.

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Linda Cordell, “Culled Lamb,” 2016. Porcelain, plastic, paint, wood. 44″ x 24″ x 10″

Although the porcelain is the main event, Cordell’s sculptures are multi-media, and the furniture pedestals on which the animals are positioned has been carefully selected and adapted. Unlike traditional frames or pedestals, which aim to be invisible and to focus attention on the work of art, Cordell’s pedestals often overwhelm the porcelain creatures poised atop them–or even caught within them. In one of her more recent works, “Culled Lamb,” the lamb has been positioned inside the shelves, the wood closing around its neck and trapping it. Cordell seems to be drawing attention to the disconnect between human and animal, domestic and wild through the dynamic between the porcelain figure and its pedestal.

For all their technical virtuosity, these are not easy works to look at. I feel at once drawn to and repulsed by Cordell’s animals, and they leave me with a lingering sense of discomfort, like being reminded of an inconvenient truth. And perhaps that’s the point.

For more on Cordell’s process and thoughts about her work, check out this video interview with Cordell at her South Philadelphia studio:


“American Bison” – A Royal Entry for a Majestic Beast

Last week, Emily White’s monumental “American Bison” arrived at the PAA. He’s now happily resting in our downstairs gallery, but his entry into the building was pretty dramatic. Check out these photos, taken by Frank Porras!

Come visit “American Bison,” as well as the other critters that are part of A Curious Nature, from October 6–December 4!

 


A Curious Nature at the Art Alliance – October 6 through December 4, 2016

This fall, some curious creatures are coming to the Art Alliance. Opening October 6, A Curious Nature brings together the work of Linda Cordell, Tasha Lewis, Caitlin McCormack, and Emily White. Using a diverse range of media, these artists explore our relationship with nature through the lens of the animal kingdom. Whether real or imaginary, wild or domestic, animals have long been defined by their interactions with humans, which shape everything from their physical habitats to their symbolic cultural meanings. Together, the artists of A Curious Nature probe the human/animal dichotomy, troubling the traditional anthropocentric understanding of animals that values them solely for their usefulness to people. In the galleries of the PAA, the creatures of A Curious Nature will talk amongst themselves, creating a conversation that spans species and artistic media. If we look and listen closely, we just might learn to appreciate animals in new ways.

Emily White, "American Bison," 2011.

Emily White, “American Bison,” 2011.

Downstairs, sculptor Emily White’s work confronts us with the darker side of human intervention in the natural world: extinction. A monumental bison made of wood and fiber in the central gallery stands in harsh juxtaposition to the fine woodwork and plaster of the Wetherill Mansion, a reminder that the mansion was being built in the early twentieth century, when American bison were being slaughtered in huge numbers. On the ceiling, a flock of now extinct carrier pigeons are frozen in flight. In the front gallery, White’s textile cowhides cleverly play with the craft tradition of quilting and the practice of skinning animals. Moreover, her quilted hides look almost pixellated, drawing attention to the dichotomy of the digital versus the handmade.

Upstairs, Linda Cordell, Caitlin McCormack, and Tasha Lewis explore similar themes on a somewhat smaller scale. Cordell’s unorthodox porcelain figurines present domestic animals like dogs not as sweet and harmless ornaments to the home, but rather as oozing, organic, and strangely threatening creatures that seem ill at ease in a domestic setting. Her porcelain animals bleed, drool, and decay, pushing the boundaries of her ceramic medium and suggesting the negative, distorting effects of domestication upon animals’ bodies. Nearby, McCormack’s crocheted imaginary animal skeletons look like miniature Jabberwockies, fanciful creations that would be at home in any Lewis Carroll tale. Playfully juxtaposing traditions of taxidermy and crochet, McCormack suggests the limitations of our attempts to understand animals through practices like dissection. Finally, Tasha Lewis’s textile installations of butterflies, bones, and other wildlife likewise reference scientific practices that structure our relationship with animals, such as taxidermy, photography, and museum display. Her fragmentary animal bodies look as though they are emerging out of the wall, giving them an uncanny, lifelike quality.

Over the coming weeks, we will be following the artists as they install their work. In the next four posts, we will share our discussions with the artists, as well as our own reflections about the work in A Curious Nature. Stay tuned!


Frames of Memory

Until August 14, the Art Alliance hosts Memoria Aperta, the first solo show in the United States of work by multi-talented jeweler, goldsmith, and glass artist Barbara Paganin. Paganin hails from Venice, and the rich and layered references in her work speak to the eternal mysteries of La Serenissima, a magical city filled with glass and mosaic, memory and history. The works of Memoria Aperta consist of elaborately crafted brooches and neckpieces. While the brooches were shown in 2014 at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, the neckpieces are being shown for the first time at the Art Alliance. These monumental yet intimate works are a tour-de-force of the jeweler’s craft. Building on the fragments of memory evoked by the smaller-scale brooches, these neckpieces function like frames waiting to be animated by the bodies and memories of wearers and viewers.

Paganin’s titles for these neckpieces make the parallel to picture frames clear–indeed, one is even entitled “Cornice” (“Frame”). Likewise, allusions to memory are clear in titles like “Nontiscordardime” (“Forget-me-not”) and “Contenitori” (“Containers”). The neckpieces are composed to discrete units–delicately perforated oxidized silver compartments filled with a range of miniature objects–connected by small metal circles that look almost like the links in chain mail. Protective and talismanic, these neckpieces evoke their absent wearers, as well as the absent owners of the eccentric fragments that fill each compartment. Is this the absence brought about by death, or simply the absence of missing or lost items–a kind of lost-and-found in the form of jewelry? Paganin leaves these questions open, although the muted palette of soft purple, gray, and off-white evokes mourning and a Proustian nostalgia for times past.

 

One of my favorite pieces in the show is the playfully named “Sotto il cavolo” (“Under the Cabbage”). This neckpiece never fails to provoke a response in visitors. It consists of alternating fragments of romanesco broccoli preserved in dental acrylic, and coffin-shaped oxidized silver compartments filled with miniature porcelain babies, complete with articulated limbs posed in eerily lifelike ways. Seeing the coffin-like compartments and uncanny paleness of the dolls’ porcelain skin, many viewers conclude that this neckpiece alludes to the death and loss of a child. Upon closer examination, however, clear allusions to birth and regeneration emerge alongside these references to death and decay.

The title alludes to the old wives’ tale that babies are born under cabbage leaves, while the shape and coloration of the romanesco broccoli evokes the shape of the female breast, complete with nipples. The repetition of these elements, which alternate along the entire circuit of the neckpiece, inspire an almost rosary-like engagement with the wearer, ritual touching accompanied by prayer to the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the imagery is meant to protect a mother, or perhaps it is meant to be a charm for a would-be mother, inviting the blessing of hoped-for children. The body of the female wearer also has the potential to transform the meaning of the piece, depending on her age and fertility.

These multiple layers of meaning are folded into both the making and wearing of the piece, and speak to Paganin’s skill as a jeweler and a storyteller. The ambitious scale of her neckpieces expand the vision of the brooches in Memoria Aperta, creating embodied memoryscapes that speak to each of us in different ways.

Text by Flora Ward

Barbara Paganin: Memoria Aperta is on through August 14, 2016. The Art Alliance is open Tuesday–Sunday, noon–6 pm. Suggested donation: $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors.