Five days before the January residency I met with my mentor, Shelburne Thurber, for the last time. Her final semester assessment was that my photographs looked resolved, while my sculptures looked more like sketches. I agreed with her, and it was through that lens of thought that I approached the residency.
In my first residency group critique I was taken a bit aback when Stuart Steck and fellow students all agreed that my sculptures were the work and the photographs looked like sketches to inspire the sculptures. Stuart was quite enamored with my sculptures. He said they went right up to the edge of kitsch and stopped, and I seemed to have an innate sense of when to stop and not overwork. Stuart suggested photographing my sculptures with very unnatural light, like the kind Cindy Sherman has used. He said he predicted people wouldn't be talking so much about my photographs, but would instead be discussing my sculptures.
Next I met with my last advisor, John Kramer. John said my photographs examined sophisticated cultural ideas, and they had an “almost Shellburne elegance” to them. On the other hand my sculptures had a naiveté, and childlike appearance and playfulness that didn't mesh with the sophistication of the photographs.
In my next group critique with Deb Davidson I introduced my work through
the comments I'd heard so far. She said she agreed with John, and said
my sculptures and my photographs were speaking different languages. She said to think about how William Christenberry's photographs and sculptures mesh and compliment one another. She said I have to find a way to do the same.
In my meeting with my new advisor, Ben Sloat, he commented that my photographs were all too much the same: same orientation, same framing, and the same cyan/magenta cast. There was no edge to my photographs. They were too pleasant. The stakes weren’t high enough. My sculptures had much more to look at and into, more to contemplate. There was a definite edge to my sculptures. There was a threatening sense of doom and disaster in my sculpture, but there was also a sense of liberation. Ben was concerned I might get lured into making the sculptures too cute. But I don’t think that will happen because it bothers me when people look at them and only comment on the fantastical and don’t see the ominous edge. To me they are nothing without that edge. Ben said I should think about the idea of place, transition, and of the actual process of transformation, the power and pain that is involved. Ben said I should photograph my sculptures, and he thought that would be much more interesting than my current photographs. I should play with lighting within my sculptures, and should think of lighting as an actual character. Ben suggested I contact William Christenberry. He said he thinks he’d be the perfect mentor for me. But I said that would be difficult since Christenberry lives in Washington, D.C.. So Ben said it would be a good combination if I could converse with Christenberry and work with Jesseca Ferguson as my mentor.
My next faculty critique was with Beth Campbell. Her main comment on the sculptures was that they are models of thought as opposed to the viewer experiencing my thought. But she thought my photographs were psychologically charged. She said the language in the photographs was ethereal, and the houses were made permeable in a way. She said not all of the photographs landed the viewer, but the ones that did seemed to capture not the ghost of what had been there, but rather the energy. Beth said she’d really like to see me mix up the scale in the photographs; print some really large, and print others really small. She said my photographs were very much about the relationship within the space so I should push the limits in order to emphasize that.
Graduating students Noelle Fiori, Jenna Powell, and Jennifer Harriman echoed Beth Campbell in several ways. They all agreed on dramatically mixing up the size of the photographs not just to emphasize the relationships within space, but also to emphasize the sense of intimacy (small), and the sense of being a bit off balance (very large). They said my photographs spoke of trace and loss, comfort and sadness, reflection and nostalgia. They said my photographs really directed the viewer where to look, and some were a bit disorienting. Leigh Yardley made some interesting comments on how the viewer moved through space in my photographs. To her the more successful ones were the ones where the viewer had to puzzle out where they were, and were led somewhere only to bounce back into something else within the image. She said I should think about putting the viewer in a position of ambiguity of space. A couple of people suggested experimenting with projections as a way of adding another layer to my work.
Graduating student Shawn Saumell found my sculptures more successful. He liked the interplay between exterior and interior, the natural and the artificial, the physical and the spiritual. He liked the time element in my work, where nature is taking over and repossessing. He liked the way my sculptures seemed to beg for a narrative that the viewer had to make up. He also suggested photographing them, and pushing my color irregularities more. Since Shawn is a good one to talk about lighting with, I pressed him on various methods and types he’s used.
My last critique was with Laurel Sparks. She started off the discussion with the comment, “Being literal is dangerous territory. Being opaque is dangerous territory.” She felt my sculptures were too dense with information, packed tight with symbolism, and lacked subtlety and nuance. She said I should distill them in order to articulate my meaning to the viewer with more clarity. She also thought they were not as strange as they should be. She said she preferred the sense of poetry within my photographs. She particularly liked the photographs where there was a contrast between sharpness of detail and blur. She liked the sense of presence and absence within them. She said my photographs were spaces of contemplation where the viewer had a role as a witness within them. She said I should think about how to negotiate those relationships of space. Laurel’s parting words were that it was no wonder people talked of either the sculpture or the photographs, because she felt like they competed against each other. She said the viewer had to pick one or the other because they literally needed to be separated.
I was glad there was a panel discussion on metaphor and symbol, because I have been utilizing symbols within my work, and using house and home as a metaphor. Ben asked me “why the house?” The house is a stand in for the human and his and her sense of their so-called protective shell. And the chairs in my sculptures are stand-ins for the individual. I am very interested in speaking metaphorically, so Deb Davidson’s comment that “metaphor and symbol are tied together visually” resonated with me. John Kramer, my past advisor, suggested that one of my subjects for a research paper should be metaphor. He also suggested one topic should be nature, since I have also been using nature as a symbol in my work. I thought it was interesting that Tony Apesos posed the question in his talk “is there really such a thing as natural symbols?” Tony also said “Meaning is not just in a pile of symbols, but also in the way it is painted.” This talk gave me things to think about within my own work.
I particularly liked my elective seminar’s visit to the MIT Museum. Ben made an interesting comment there: “Art doesn’t make relic the way science does.” Relics, and people’s relationships with them, fascinate me. And it is interesting to ponder on many levels where the art lies. I also think it is important for me to consider Ben’s comment on the kinetic sculptures, that “turning technology into an artistic form seems to trap the artist.”
For me it was a very full, productive, and enriching residency. And now it’s back to work. Photography is a funny medium. It is literally wandering between the darkness and the light. I have so many ideas in my head right now I hope I don’t wander off into a black hole and get lost. But I think I have to just take the leap of faith and see where it leads me this semester. When you jump off a cliff you have two alternatives: learn to fly, or fall flat on your face. I’ve always kind of had my head in the clouds, so I think I’ll strive for the former.