Reflect/Collect: An Essay on the Ones We Know

Reflect/Collect: An Essay On The Ones We Know

The One You Know brings together all ten NAPOLEON artists, each of whom have chosen a guest artist whose work resonates with their own. Artists are generally viewed as makers but we also fit the opposing impulse with just as much passion; we are also collectors. For each of us our personal collections are informative, challenging, familiar and inspiring. This exhibition displays works that are either in our collections or to which we pay particularly special attention. Many of the guest artists are mentors, colleagues or old friends. The One You Know will be in Bala Cynwyd’s NoBa Art Space.

Lewis Colburn – Irve Dell
Irve Dell was my first sculpture instructor in undergrad, and he taught me everything from woodworking to welding to foundry. Beyond process though, Irve brought a poetic, playful, and open-ended approach to teaching sculpture, always encouraging us to push beyond the static object, while still maintaining a fanatical attention to detail, materiality, and craft.

Since undergrad, I’ve kept in touch with Irve, and helped with numerous projects, including a 2009 play that he and his wife collaborated on in Philadelphia. Irve’s emphasis on both concept and craft has etched itself deeply into my work. While I don’t own any of Irve’s work, he has kindly contributed a piece for the show. Irve creates a surreal dialogue in works like Spiderman contemplates his own self image while Hulk seethes nearby, a piece based on objects he has found, molded, and modified, framed by the context of a handmade bathroom sink. This same idea of conversation across objects shapes An Inventory, the work I am including in The One You Know. The work presents a selection of small sketches or experimental objects, arrayed on a shelf, as if just out of reach, like little thoughts that flit sideways when we try to focus on them.

Marianne Dages – Gerard Brown
I met Gerard Brown in 2003 when I was a junior studying photography at The University of the Arts and he taught a seminar in photo criticism and theory. Through readings, Gerard introduced the class to the idea that we can “read” images to glean their hidden messages, a challenging concept to a fiercely formalist 20 year old art student like me. I vividly remember reading an excerpt from Roland Barthe’s Rhetoric of the Image, an essay that employed semiotics to analyze a print advertisement for pasta and contained the word “Italianicity.” Ok, I mostly remember it because I found that word hilariously weird…but in revisiting that text today, I realize how relevant it is to both our practices, as fifteen years later we both find ourselves on similar paths of investigating systems, languages, and codes. In my series, The Rhoden Prints, I ask what happens to text when legibility is removed and only a visual system remains? If the system is broken, is there a still a message to be gleaned from the signs themselves? In his work, Gerard converts the data of mathematical and lingual systems into visuals, crafting formally beautiful compositions that reveal the patterns that make up the very matrix of nature and our society.

I also remember that Gerard was the first teacher that ever collected my work. My senior year, he bought my small cyanotype still of Steve Mcqueen’s clenched fist from Sam Peckinpah’s film The Getaway. That transaction gave me a boost of confidence sorely needed at the time. Gerard has checked in with generous words or actions of encouragement many times since. This spirit of support for my practice and I imagine many other past and current student’s practices, is what brought him to my mind for this exhibition. It’s a pleasure to invite him to be a part of this show.

Ava Hassinger – Maren Hassinger
There is no greater influence than my mother – Maren Hassinger. For as long as I can remember, I have seen her work with incredible diligence, tenacity, and grace. She has shared her lessons of wisdom, love, and guidance with many, including myself. One lesson was to keep one’s practice fluid – whether formally, in sculpture, performance, video, photography, or in material – paper, plastic, or wire to name a few. My mother’s journey began in modern dance, mine in photography. While our approaches to sculpture and art in general are different, our material interests and ideas cross-over, because, no matter what – I am my mother’s daughter. We started working together under the name Matriarch in 2011, and completed several iterations of this collaboration, mostly in performance. The last version was presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where we created a site specific installation incorporating found materials and video taken from the building itself. The materials consisted of plastic, paper, and drywall. I observed my mother’s careful sensibility when working with paper, one of her many materials, a care she developed over 40 years of experience. Another material which appeared early on in her practice was wire rope. For my mother, a relationship to nature is imperative to our daily lives. In 4 Palmettos, her manipulation of wire rope, an industrial material, into the natural form of a palmetto frond, makes for a simple yet profound statement. As she wrote in her essay “Passing Through” for Maren Hassinger . . . Dreaming, a catalog for the 2015 retrospective of the same name at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art:

I discovered the material wire rope, which became a very important material. Wire rope is steel, and can be treated as steel, but it is also a rope, so it can be treated as a fiber. The rope could look like many elements of nature – hair, vines, or water ripples. There was potential for the expression of motion, and you can see in the way that it’s made that there is a bound up, wound up potential energy twisted into the material. This also reminded me of dance.

I realized that recently I too had developed a fondness for wire of a different kind, the kind that is behind the walls of our homes, office buildings, and schools. Electrical wire, color coated for distinction and differentiation of various devices and appliances, had made its way into my studio practice. In this new work- Untitled, 2017 two household items are combined and made to serve new purposes as conduits for the transference and storage of energy – the overflow of items with no place. For this exhibition, I present it with a work by my mother which I found in a box of possessions belonging to her mother, an origin I find comically harmonious because somehow I cannot escape the lineage of objects passing through generations of matriarchs in my family.

Katie Locke – James Loic Maurelle
“You see ghosts too, huh?” James said to me, after my first graduate school group critique. James and I were first year classmates at the University of Pennsylvania Interdisciplinary Fine Arts program, and I was defending the first work I had done there, a monochromatic pink painting. I was trying to connect the painting to ideas of the uncanny and intuition, but instead tried on some art speak to impress my new colleagues, and it fell very flat. At the end of the night, the room was nearly cleared out, and I was de-installing the painting. Almost out of thin air, James appeared as I turned from taking the painting off of the wall. Riddle-like in its delivery, I found his statement to be hilarious, enigmatic, and compassionate. He understood the potency of pink, and how the painting could work as a psychic conduit.

Over time I would discover that not only would I have the same reaction to other thoughts James shared, but that I was not the only one reaping the benefits of his wisdom. James was a guide to me and everyone in the program. He is consistently sage and poetic in his words and his art.

At the end of our time in the program, he asked if we could trade pieces. He gave me this pink piece, from a body of work exploring his experience as a plumber’s assistant. I find it to be a hilarious, enigmatic, and compassionate piece, like it’s maker, and I love that it lives in my home with me

James Loic Maurelle – Erlin Adonis Geffrard
Storytelling and the nuances of language are the intentions expressed by Erlin Adonis Geffrard through his work. A call and response between play and work, life and death, popular ephemera and cultural history. These pieces weave a narrative that investigates the gradient of agency in relation to music, epoch, degrees of immigration, and the spiritual ties to Haiti.

My relationship to Erlin started on the campus of the San Francisco Art Institute, our first meeting was open and transformative. Our friendship is distinct (within the canon of art history) because of our primary mediums. He is a painter, and I am a sculptor. We have many contrasting counterpoints; age, life experiences, philosophies etc. but, the eternal lineage via the isle of Haiti remains our namesake.

Alexis Nutini – Desiderio Xochitiotzin
Desiderio Xochitiotzin was a self-taught muralist, designer, and graphic artist. He is best known for his murals, paintings, and drawings depicting the history, rituals, and customs of the Tlaxcalteca people. Tlaxcala was an autonomous nation perpetually at war with the dominant Aztec empire and is infamous for aiding Hernan Cortez in their conquest. The main thrust of Xochitiotzin’s work is to preserve the history and elevate what remains of this misunderstood and often villainized culture.

I grew up frequently visiting Xochitiotzin’s home and spent many summer days playing in his studio and observing him paint. He and my father were close friends, as well as instrumental building blocks in each of their life’s work. My father aided him in the research for his murals and in turn Xochitiotzin became one of his primary informants for his ethnographies on Mexican culture. In addition to formal influences such as mark making, graphic line, and brilliant color, it was his didactic approach that aided me in some of my early successes as an artist. My Fulbright project A visual ethnography of Barcelona was a direct riff on his depictions of everyday life and important rituals of the Tlaxcalan people.

Daniel Oliva – Joan Wadleigh Curran
When I was a graduate assistant in Joan Curran’s drawing class at the University of Pennsylvania, I became hooked on her feedback. Her critiques of students’ sketches, thumbnails, or plans provided more than the usual instructor’s guidance. She had, and still has, an honesty sharp enough to cut to the core of matters with apparent ease in order to reveal crucial openings for growth. Today, as Joan’s studio assistant, we share conversations about flowers (unusual and glamorous) society (well, you know) and art (when the big knives come out), all of which Joan discusses with rigorous intellectual precision. Together, we consider the way that life displays painful decay in a cold, clear light devoid of sentimentality yet filled with sensuous beauty, and how that decay reaches out towards the light, like a joyful, blooming flower.

We share a mutual interest in using, in her words, “convincing description and arresting composition to seduce the viewer and subtly undercut beauty with the unexpected, unsettling and provocative.” Her charcoal drawing, Trap, evokes in me a sense of dread and beautiful attachment; I am attracted to its many curves and jagged thorns. I made the drawing Angry Man earlier this summer as images of the man that we fear, the man that we know, haunted me. We are explorers of the visible world, it was made for looking, and what we see must be keenly observed.

John Thompson – Robb Damman
Robb Damman is a painter who occupied the studio next to mine in my first year of graduate school at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Robb’s practice is prolific and I’ve always appreciated his discipline both in and out of the studio. His sensitivity to the world around him is translated almost every day into his paintings. Untitled (Georgia’s Dream) is a painting made after a daily run along the Schuylkill while his dog, Georgia, was home in North Carolina. I was lucky enough to trade with Robb for the painting and have had it since 2007. The painting now hangs in my bedroom above a piece I started in 2008, a scaled-up version of a standard Pine Car Derby car. I’ve since patched and refinished damaged areas over time. I feel fortunate that the pairing of these two works is the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I see at night. Robb’s painting, to me, illustrates the depth of immediate experience when one is sensitive and open enough to trust the things that speak to them. Meanwhile, GT Racer Maintenance becomes a cared-for thing in which an interaction and understanding is established over time. Robb’s practice and his work have certainly influenced my own process as it continually reminds me to maintain a presence of observation in the world and to believe in the value of experience and thought as generators for work.

Tamsen Wojtanowski – Lawrence Cameron
In my experience so far, being mostly young and mostly broke and bouncing from state to state, I haven’t considered collecting art as much as I’ve practiced its creation. Making art was a necessity to my well-being. It was not a thing to possess. Any artwork that did make it home came in the form of showcards or flyers or images torn from magazines. So it was a novel sensation to find myself desiring to own a photograph by Lawrence Cameron at an exhibition a few years back and serendipitous to find it in my price point. I did not know the artist, but I was drawn to the photograph because in it the artist was paramount.

This image is of an artist, it is about the experience of an artist, and it is created with the artist’s hand.

When encountering this image for the first time, it places you in a space that feels innocent and wild. The viewer is introduced to a nude figure being physically consumed by the over-sized canvas they are carrying. With no common mores of modern topography, the image and the viewer become unhinged from place and time. We are no longer the tightrope walker, confined to one linear path along the top of the rope, we are the tiny, unseen flea, finding its way around and along the tightrope, challenging the tightrope walker’s understanding of reality. For me, this led to an “a-ha” moment. Art can be anything I want it to be. It does not need to follow reality or bend to the expected or our common understandings of things. For work to communicate, it does not need to speak plainly.

The presentation of the image breaks all the “rules,” and in doing so made the artist behind the work more visible. The rectangle is the standard for the photographic frame. This image is printed in a circular frame. It is not how we see nor how the camera sees, it is how the artist saw this image. The underexposed print causes the image to sit lightly on the page, blurring the separation between the sky and the white of the paper. We lose the frame, and with it the illusion that the photograph is portal into another world. It is no longer a portal, it is a piece of paper, reminding us that photographs are reproducible by nature and therefore not precious. Yet this blur between material and image makes the object feel more fragile, in a way more precious. But then again, it’s just a piece paper, everyday ephemera, like those images I spent years tearing from periodical and putting in piles or tacking up on boards. Another “a-ha” moment, another “yes of course!” It is not about possession. Art is life. Art is necessity. To elevate this with outlandish or out-of-reach materiality does not align with my sensibilities and does not need to.

Ricardo Zapata – Chat Travieso
I met Chat Travieso in art class on the first day of Middle School in the 6th grade. We were seated alphabetically and since both our last names are near the end of the alphabet, we were placed near each other. We’ve been very close friends since that point and share much in common, having watched each other grow, mature, and explore our artistic practices. Through the various discussions and critiques we’ve had and continue to have, I am encouraged to continue my drive to create artwork that engages my desire to promote social consciousness while calling attention to power relationships and those marginalized as a result of these relationships.

Even for as long as I have known Chat, it is always refreshing to see his work and in it his drive for compassion and empathy–from his functional urban interventions and public art projects to the gallery work we see here. As he states, his piece Uneven Landscapes “captures the sense of being surrounded by construction sites, but knowing none of these future buildings are for you. The piece is a reminder of the monstrosity of unbridled urban development at the expense of working people.” Him and I both create interdisciplinary work driven by politicized desires and notions of community and power. My work here presents the intrepid possibilities of transgressive events and actions extolled to a venerated status.

About the authors: These statements were written by the ten members of NAPOLEON for the exhibition The One You Know. Lewis Colburn, Marianne Dages, Ava Hassinger, Katie Locke, James Loic Maurelle, Alexis Nutini, Daniel Oliva, H. John Thompson, Tamsen Wojtanowski, and Ricardo Zapata.

For a PDF version of this essay please click HERE

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