In 1936, the Museum of Modern Art showcased a project by the famed photographer Edward Steichen that featured work not in his expected medium, but Delphiniums he had bred himself at Umpawaug, a farm he owned in Connecticut. Considering this show today, embracing horticulture as art in an institution is surprisingly inclusive, but it also raises questions about the status of Steichen’s photographs of his flowers. Are they documentation of artworks, or the primary artwork themselves? Are they ways to extend and experiment with the image of a flower he had a hand in creating? His various creative pursuits mirror the pluralism artists find themselves working in today, making work within a stream of reproductions, alternate versions, and duplicates.
With the 1936 MoMA show in mind, Kimberly-Klark, a gallery in Ridgewood, Queens, has mounted Umpawaug’s Bloom. The show features the work of three living artists — Erin Jane Nelson, Phil Cote, and Ashley Carter — alongside the late Ray Johnson. Each work incorporates or references photography, but like Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums,the artists move away from the medium. Here the shift leans towards collage and assemblage sculptural work.
Nelson’s piece, “Dullup” (2014), is an irregularly-shaped quilt that looks like a scaled-up garment pattern. Closer investigation reveals it to be a large T-shirt extended to be extra-long. The surface holds a variety of materials including tie-dyed sheets, a coffee cup sleeve, an embroidered patch, grommets, what appear to be metal claws, and images printed on fabric. What’s interesting is how these components all naturally fit together. When confronted with the “randomness” of this piece, its patchwork doesn’t feel like a series of nonsensical pairings, but like a language you haven’t yet learned. It demands that you pay attention, give it time, and make connections.
Cote’s large-scale painting, “The Supposed Behavior of Spirits” (2015), dominates the main wall of the gallery. Similar to Nelson’s piece, this painting operates according to its own logic. Words float around its edges, containing the overwhelming volume of information within the painting. An infinity symbol catches the word “CREMATION” in one of its loops. Scraps of images and advertisements make their way into the composition alongside several stylistically divergent drawings and paintings contradictorily placed near each other. There’s a desperate energy to this piece, like every idea passing through Cote’s head while he was working had to be expressed. Some seem like intuitive choices, like a silhouette of a shoe painted near a papier-maché shoe sole that juts from the canvas. If the jumble suggests any setting, it would be the moment in a science-fiction story when a spaceship tips over into another dimension and is fragmented and pulled apart in a white void.
Like the wreckage from this scene, Carter’s two sculptures resemble debris on the floor of the gallery. The sculptures are kitchen exhaust fans turned on their sides with ephemera sitting atop. The pedestal structures surrounding them have domestic images pasted on their sides of household items such as gloves and sinks. One seems to be crushed under a chunk of cement embedded with a soap container and a cigarette. The other has a printed image hooked onto it that would likely fall off otherwise. There’s physical tension in this setup: one assemblage is compressed, the other fighting to rise. These familiar objects look truly strange presented in this way, and so carry the unsettling, vaguely post-apocalyptic feeling of considering an object stripped of its original use.
The Johnson collages do feel like forebears of the rest of the work in the show. Smaller and contained in simple frames, they are related to but separate from the rest of the pieces. Like a supplemental text, they point to a lineage of collage-based work. Johnson worked into these small, extremely symbol-laden, and obsessively detailed pieces over the course of several years. “Untitled (Tab Hunter William Burroughs)” (1976–81) is the standout of the two, showing both figures’ profiles at once within a circular composition. The various drawn characters, collaged photographs and papers, and graphic symbols all speak to each other with a masterful effortlessness. So much is done with so little, and the two collages endlessly unfold with engaging moments.
Nelson’s piece could stand as a microcosm for the entire show, where a willingness to experiment, often utilizing quotidian and low-brow materials, coalesces into something complex and initially impenetrable. However, there’s enough self-contained logic and beauty to the ordering that a viewer is willing to spend the time needed to piece together the disparate elements.
I left the show pondering its title and trying to connect photography to horticulture. A photograph traditionally originates in a negative, but from there on it’s all reproduction, creating new combinations and iterations from the same raw material. Steichen retaining certain strains and whittling out others over generations of flowers, joyfully experimenting along the way, is akin to this. At Umpawaug’s Bloom this is taken further, mutating into the strange hybrid sculptural and collage-based work on display.
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