Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gibson + Recoder: Articulating the Material Substance of Light

Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder have been collaborating since 2000,  
producing numerous expanded cinema installations and performances that go beyond the category of moving image to incorporate the visual, mechanical and conceptual qualities of film projection.

“The art of projection is an area we’ve been working in for 15 years creating ways of articulating the material substance of light,” says Luis. “In the same way a sculptor might work with a material they chisel away at, we find ways of carving, subtracting and adding light.”

Sandra and Luis produce both performance and installation work. When performing, they are sometimes in front of an audience, while at other times they are in the projection booth each operating a projector. They will work in tandem with traditional film, experimental film and sometimes no film, just light. They come equipped with glass, colored filters and a humidifier that produces vapor. As the projector rolls, they each interact with the projected light creating a cinematic progression of light and color that is accompanied by sound produced by a collaborator.

During their residency at VCCA, Sandra and Luis set up a number of camera obscura situations in studios VA 7 and VA 8. The pieces on view during VCCA’s Open Studios were beautiful, fragile and mysterious. In these works, Sandra and Luis are co-opting a naturally occurring scientific phenomenon, but they’re doing it in such an interesting way, making us think about light—its fragility and power and also about perception itself. Yes, we are looking at reality, but because of the nature of optics, it’s upside down. The light/image is further altered depending on aperture size and where it’s directed. Sandra and Luis use wrinkled and torn paper and supermarket plastic bags blown about by electric fans to add texture and movement. These various techniques transform the image into something blurred and fleeting, quite separate from the outside world it’s capturing. It’s as if we’re looking at it from a remove of distance or time.

Not all the camera obscura pieces featured recognizable images. One piece used filters so the image was abstracted and the work became more a study of colored light and shadow. Another used a revolving glass vase as a lens to bend and warp the light creating dynamic projected reflections. “We’re moving away from the obvious camera obscura ‘how’s it done’ mechanical thing,” says Luis. “People tend to get hung up on trying to figure out what it is. We want to put layers in front of that so people can experience it first and then ask that question.”

People also tend to associate the camera obscura with photography. “The camera obscura has been hijacked by photography through the use of the pinhole camera,” says Sandra. “We see the camera obscura as micro-cinema, or more precisely, live cinema projection.” When you think about it, this is exactly right because the light that the camera obscura captures recreates an exact image of the living, breathing, moving world.

The camera obscura is a form of found art, since it records what is already there. It’s also low tech–you only need a darkened room and a small opening for light–and ancient; Aristotle himself makes note of the phenomenon.

I like the way that Sandra and Luis take something antiquated and overlooked like the camera obscura or film technology with all its interesting retro looking artifacts and somehow made it cutting edge. They’ve done it by taking a completely different approach, highlighting the means (the equipment, the methodology) rather than the end (a precise recreation of the world outside/the moving image) to create thought provoking and beautiful work.

Sandra and Luis are based in New York and have exhibited and performed internationally at the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, Mad. Sq. Art, Performa, Light Industry, The Kitchen, Anthology Film Archives, Microscope Gallery, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hallwalls, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, REDCAT, Ballroom Marfa, Robischon Gallery, Sundance Film Festival, CATE, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Sagamore, Toronto International Film Festival, Images Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Tate Modern, Barbican Art Gallery, ICA, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Viennale, Austrian Film Museum, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, HMKV, RIXC, 25FPS, Courtisane, M HKA, STUK, BOZAR, TENT, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Reina Sofia, La Casa Encendida, CCCB, Museu do Chiado, Serralves Foundation, Solar Galeria de Arte Cinemática, Careof/Viafarini DOCVA, Atelier Impopulaire, Morra Foundation, Nam June Paik Art Center, Yokohama Museum of Art, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Sandra and Luis both have individual works in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art that will be on included in the inaugural exhibition at its new location, America is Hard to See (May 1- September 27, 2015).

In 2010 Sandra and Luis were awarded a commission by Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York to create a public art piece that was exhibited in Spring 2013. Topsy-Turvy: A Camera Obscura Installation was subsequently exhibited the following fall at Brooklyn Bridge Park.


As so often happens at VCCA, an artwork from one discipline inspired a Fellow in another one. Following is a poem by Maria Terrone written after seeing Sandra and Luis's camera obsura pieces


Inside a vast space blackened
for Sandra & Luis’s camera obscura show,
a pair of glass “eyes” on one wall projected
the outdoors onto a wrinkled vellum roll,
a mural changing with every shift of cloud.

And from another wall, onto
a chain-pharmacy plastic bag—shadows
of Virginia hills, trees and barn grainy
on this day of rain, tossed about
in the wind-storm of a hidden fan,
that place we think we know
seen smaller, upside down and backwards.

As I walked past, my body changed
the light, which altered the images,
and I felt like a mad god
holding sway over my kingdom askew.

The next day, still delirious,
I walked the sky like a plank

underneath a dome of grass.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Nancy Mooslin's Lyrical Color and Music Fusions

“Everything I do is related in some way to music,” says life-long musician Nancy Mooslin. “I’m either painting an actual piece of music or a harmonic progression of my own devising—whether it be of chords, scales, or intervals of notes.” Nancy who is enjoying her “first residency anywhere—ever,” was drawn to VCCA because of its proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rich tradition of fiddle music found in the region. 

She first became interested in this type of site-specific work—interweaving landscape into her pieces using photo transfers or drawings—on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia where she photographed the Mekong River and Halong Bay. “The repetitive rhythmic patterns of moving water began to feel so musical to me.”  Visiting Buddhist temples on the trip, she heard chants. It became a natural progression to combine the two, overlaying the Buddhists chants onto her images of the local bodies of water. “Maybe I was just ready to embrace my surroundings a bit more and not be so cerebral.”

Nancy’s work is centered on a very interesting system of correlating music and color she developed and her earlier work relied on a pure geometric format. The 12-color wheel of primary, secondary and tertiary colors representing the visible spectrum (ultra-violet to infrared) corresponds to an octave because in the musical chromatic scale there are 12 steps. She made C red because C is the first note of the major scale and it will always be the beginning, and so too red light is at the beginning or bottom of the spectrum. C is red, C sharp is red/orange, D is orange, D sharp is yellow/orange, E is yellow, etc. all the way up to B, which is red/violet.

But, as Nancy points out, “that, of course, only takes care of one octave; there are seven and a half octaves on the piano. As you get lower by increments of 1/12, the note get darker and duller, and as you get higher, they get lighter and brighter. For me, this relates to those low notes that are produced by a really long string or a great big instrument. They’re full of overtones—some low pitches can have as many as 64 overtones. They’re rich, fat sounds, which, for me, relate to that rich pigment. The high notes, which might be a little piccolo or a short string, are very thin sounds. You’re only hearing the fundamental pitch with no overtones whatsoever, that’s the thin pigment pale, light color.” 

The reason one C sounds like C only higher is that the sound wave is exactly double the frequency and 1/2 the length; mathematically it’s been cut in half. In the visible spectrum violet light is exactly double the frequency and 1/2 the length of red light. So our visible world is actually a mathematical octave.

Nancy represents the meter of the music by measurement: a note that is held longer, takes up more space on the paper and then the timbre quality of sound instrument versus voice, for example, is usually represented by texture and shape: the violin’s sound all smears together and her lines blend into each other. With the piano where the notes can be more distinct, her lines remain discrete.

“The woods around here are just perfect for an overlay,” Nancy says of Mt. San Angelo. “Because the trees are so close together, tall and narrow; they weave in and out in a rhythmic way that seems to ape the way a fiddle slides around. When I first got here, I spent a couple days photographing the woods in sun and overcast light. Some of those images, I transferred onto paper overlaying on the trees 12-tone melodies much like a Schoenberg system (where you use all 12 tones without repeating). In these works, the music imbues the photographs as a kind of multicolored wash. "I chose a simple fiddle tune and placed the melody on a horizontal access across the center of the page and now I’m pulling those notes through into threes so they’ll end up looking like the pieces I did that didn’t have a specific melody running through. With these, there's more of a distinct melodic line bisecting the image.”

“One of the reasons I never applied for a residency before, is I always worked in oil. And I couldn’t imagine how I could transport my 88 tubes of paint to a remote location.” She had created her music-based palette using oil paint and was leery of venturing outside the medium. Eventually, she discovered that using the oil palette she created as a guide, she could mix the watercolor to achieve the same hues. She prefers using watercolor pencils, which allow her to be very precise, sometimes she’ll use a brush dipped in water to make a thicker or blurred line. She has many pencils each one labeled with its corresponding note.

Though she was wedded to her studio for many years she did a lot of public art in collaboration with choreographers and musicians. Her journey to liberation began when she started printmaking as a means of shaking things up. It worked, opening up the possibility of working outside the studio. Then followed the trip to Asia and VCCA. What Nancy says of her first residency program suggests it won’t be her last: “I am having such a good time here; I’m enjoying the intimacy of working on a smaller scale and responding to the beautiful surroundings.”

Though Nancy is dealing with very complex concepts, she insists she isn’t a math whiz. “It’s amazing what you can teach yourself to do when the idea requires you to know something,” she says. “But I only want to know what I need to know for the work. I say my knowledge is an inch deep and a mile long. I‘m not going to become an astrophysicist or try and understand it all. What I do like to think about is the concept behind the music of the spheres is that the same ratios exist in planetary motion as exist in music. Microcosm and the macrocosm—they’re all using the same proportions and ratios.”

Friday, April 24, 2015

David Farrar's Ephemeral Moments of Beauty and Comedy

“Ephemeral moments of beauty and comedy influence and guide my practice,” says VCCA Fellow David Farrar. “Lines of light cast through a venetian blind, a toilet roll dancing uninhibitedly in the gentle breeze of an extraction fan, the strong shadow cast from a streetlight illuminating a wooden pallet on the street. I repackage these moments as ethereal worlds isolated from the imperfections and noise of reality so that more people might appreciate the beauty of everyday occurrences.”

In his practice which incorporates printmaking, woodwork, sculpture and installation, David makes use of humble materials and objects, subtly altering them in unexpected and, indeed, quite dysfunctional ways. In the VA hallway of VCCA’s Studio Barn, he changed the EXIT sign to read EXALT, cleverly maintaining the font and utilitarian position, high on the wall, so it takes awhile to notice it. When you do, it’s hard not to smile. “I enjoy installing these pieces in ways that could be overlooked at first glance, and seeing the viewer’s moment of realization,” he says.

David was drawn to the Exit sign as an oddity. In the UK, where he’s from, exits are marked with the symbol of the running man. It’s in keeping with his practice of working with what’s around him. Whether he does this using things like soil or tree bark as media, or in the creation of, often loaded, facsimiles of objects, sometimes reproducing them in miniature, other times they’re perfect, though functionless, replicas.

While commonplace for Americans, heating vents are also unfamiliar objects for David (central heating is rare in the UK). His introduction to them occurred at the Artist House residency program, St. Mary’s College, Maryland, where he was before his arrival at VCCA. Puzzled that the paper models he left on his desk at night would be scattered on the floor when he woke, he soon realized the culprit was the forced air that came on while he slept.

David’s interested in the relationship between form and function,“ particularly the point at which an object loses its functionality,” he says. “For instance, the same object found on the street functions in a wholly different manner than when it is in a dining room. Broken and discarded objects are imbued with a sense of pathos that stems from their loss of functionality and dislocation from their original environment. I reinterpret these objects within an artistic framework, raising them up as art objects by giving them new forms and functions. In this transformation, I often physically break down these objects to their raw materials in order to reconstruct them using traditional methods such as printmaking and woodwork. I see this process as a form of preservation: if these objects were left to break down naturally they would be lost forever. So, instead, I give them a new lease on life and purpose.”

Taking the scavenged furniture, David photographs it, then breaks it down, burning the wood. Reducing the resulting charcoal to a fine ash, he uses this together with the original photograph to make a screen-printed image. It’s a wonderful rift on form and function that only gets better when you take into account silk screen terminology: you “burn” the image onto a screen using a thin layer of UV sensitive paint and a strong UV light. This, of course, references the burning of the original object; the residue or palimpsest often left behind after cleaning off a screen is called a “ghost image", which relates in some way as the image is a ghost of the no longer extant chair.

Lack of functionality also plays into his true-to-life 2-D templates of a glue stick and pair of scissors. The trick with these is you need actual glue and scissors to create their 3-D versions from the templates.

Shipping pallets figure largely in David’s work. “I like their form, the fact that they are these very functional objects with this one purpose and they haven’t been superseded by something high tech.” He’s worked with large ones before, but there is something so appealing about his miniature versions. Some he paints, others he covers in material: velvet to exalt the mundane pallet and fake grass, which suggests that nature is reclaiming the pallet, but then again, it’s artificial grass. “I make scale models out of cardboard and balsa wood so they retain their formal quality but lose their functionality; after all a balsa wood pallet is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. These works also act as visual puns that reference, and perhaps make slight fun of, the overly serious monochrome canvases of minimalism: a monochrome palette for a monochrome pallet.”  

David also makes miniature versions of the quite beautiful skeletal “houses” that are sometimes used in historic settlements to give visitors the idea of the structure of a building. “I noticed these striking forms on the landscape when I first arrived to St. Mary’s and was intrigued to learn that they are known as “ghost houses”, which is an apt description as they are wooden skeletons built on the footprint of the past and left to degrade naturally over time.”

Paper plate lithography is an experimental technique that exploits the chemical reaction between gum arabic and Xerox toner. Toner resists the gum arabic and paper absorbs it. When you put oil-based ink down, the toner attracts while the paper resists. For these lithographs, David used ink he made with Mt. San Angelo soil. The process doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Basically, all you need is a Xerox machine. It’s transient, you can only use each plate once, and the image breaks down fairly easily so there’s a painterly quality that corresponds nicely to the clarity of the Xerox.

David likes taking humdrum things and presenting them as art citing the Arte Povera movement as a major influence. Much of his work is either very fragile or not archival. “I like the delicate nature of things, they’re fleeting objects that only exist for a limited time. I don’t want to be perceived as too serious,” he says. “I like the fact people pick up on the humor in the work.”

One can marvel at his inventiveness and the labor involved in creating some of these pieces. It takes real passion, not to mention self-confidence to scan an entire roll of paper towels and then digitally print a version of it, but as David says, “This is the work I want to do; I maintain truth to the original idea. I persevere.”

When he returns to the UK, David who is from Oxford, will continue to live and work in Glasgow returning to his post as a printing technician at the Glasgow School of Art where he studied. He will also be exhibiting work made during these residencies (St. Mary's College, Maryland and VCCA) in Glasgow Open House Festival, (Glasgow) and Hidden Door Festival, (Edinburgh).