THRESHOLD is the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction or result to occur. THRESHOLD is a point of entry or a beginning. THRESHOLD encapsulates three years of work by the 2020 Sierra Nevada University MFA Interdisciplinary Arts (SNU MFA-IA) graduating class.
We are on the threshold of change, and it’s currently being defined by the extreme intensity of this sociocultural moment–a global pandemic, the social uprising for Black liberation in America, the transformation of every system we thought was immovable; from museums to universities, to police forces, to the way we shake hands (now called the elbow bump). This intensity was absorbed, processed, and exceeded by the 2020 MFA Interdisciplinary Arts graduates at Sierra Nevada University, resulting in an exhibition that serves as a portal into process and processing. Adam Longatti, Kelly Sinclair Vicars, Kenneth Claybaugh, Kristina Berry, Lisa Freeman, Lizzie Thibodeau, and Thomas Putzier each had to navigate a complex, uncertain landscape to produce art in the time of COVID-19. It wasn’t easy, and these artists developed two differing strategies of investigation and production—sending their gaze towards both the internal and external environment.
‘Environmental Art’ has traditionally been defined as art that addresses social and political issues relating to natural and/or urban landscapes. Several of the THRESHOLD artists use their external environment as subject, depicting natural elements of their local ecosystem as a conduit to investigate the transnational environmental degradation we see unfolding around us. Through painting, sculpture, and installation, these artists examine how industrial production over time dismantles organic forms into the void.
Depicting the transition areas between nature and industry in his hometown of Fresno, Adam Longatti has long painted landscapes of the Central Valley of California where he lives, a place which holds a proven title as the state’s second most polluted air quality after Los Angeles. In his current series of paintings, Definition, he gives form to the air, and paints landscape mirages, air dissipation, and light to make visible the almost intangible slow erosion of air quality over time. In his Sky Diary, Longatti would sit in the same spot daily and paint the same square of sky, recording air as a diaristic entry—a daily ritual to understand its deviations as much as his own.
Kelly Sinclair Vicars’ Listening in Void Space pictorializes a mine, Malakoff Diggins, near her Nevada City, California hometown, as a literal and perceptual void–an earthen absence where not just land but native lives, lifeways, and ecosystems were extracted and disappeared. Using all of her senses, she listens with the mine and creates abstract paintings from what she “sees”, using a symbolic, synesthetic language of sound to help us connect to the vibrant and resilient living landscape within the void. Vicars’ multimedia practice spans painting, drawing, installation, and audio art. Her practice of deep listening, inspired by Pauline Oliveros, is an important strategy all of us can benefit from during the pandemic and current social uprising in America. “Redemption preserves itself in a small crack in the continuum of catastrophe,” Walter Benjamin says, and Vicars’ latest body of work affirms that life can regenerate and reform from total manmade decimation.
In Kenneth Claybaugh’s mixed-media sculptures, he combines discarded trash from the edges of the Arkansas River in his hometown of Pueblo, Colorado with natural clay and organic materials to question humans’ role in the environmental decay we see in our daily lives. Reversing the frame, he also sculpts natural organic forms found in Pueblo’s ecosystem using toxic materials to show how industry mimics natural production and continues to overtake it as time wears on.
In the time of the global pandemic, however, there are changing perceptions of our natural environment, and even the term ‘environment’ itself. What constitutes a site or space when most social interaction and means of cultural production now happens digitally, and from inside our home?
What does ‘local’ mean when we are often communicating with our neighbors via video chat as opposed to in-person? And at a time of widely-spread illness, the complicated organic matter of our bodies serves as the local land we are stewarding inside our homes. Inside those bodies reside the constantly undulating states of our mind and our emotions–the other environment that requires caretaking and artmaking to process in this moment.
The other half of THRESHOLD’s artists look inwards to investigate the intimate environment of their personal emotional landscape and employ fabric art, photography, painting, installation, video and the internet–provocatively hovering between fact and fiction, poetry and documentation to suggest a more nuanced and complex relationship between the burden of trauma and surviving its present manifestation. In sharing these deeply personal experiences, connections are made with each other and with the audience–a creative bridge is built across the threshold of loss and grief the pandemic has manifested for many of us.
This threshold can also be used as a metaphor for our current moment, intensity without structure, without form. A threshold is also a beginning, and with the closures and cancelations at art spaces across the country (five out of the seven SNU MFA-IA graduating artists had their hometown thesis show canceled by their galleries), these artists have had to forge new ways of making and viewing artwork. Traditional art galleries—sterile, windowless viewing rooms aptly labeled the “white cube” by artist and critic Brian O’Doherty in 1976—have dominated the art world for decades as the primary way to display works, and all of that changed this year. The cube had always created something artificial and elitist about the way the viewer interacts with art, removing both from the outside world, and from anyone who doesn’t seek out or discover that room. Without the ability to go inside or to stumble across, these artists had to radically reimagine how their art might be shared. How do we bring the inside out? And to whom?
For some of the artists in THRESHOLD traversing the internal landscape of emotional trauma, the narrative shifted from victim to survivor as they adopted different mediums attuned to the new conditions of viewing art. Instead of doing what so many of us have during the pandemic–looking backwards as a way to block our creative path forward–they cleared new trails for creative expression. They relied on autobiography as a grounding narrative to connect their new mediums to the larger socio cultural landscape; isolation, resistance, and new forms of community and communication.
Lisa Freeman creates self-proclaimed “visual statements” about her personal emotional landscape by layering bold diaristic text over photographs, similar to artist Barbara Kruger. Unlike Kruger, Freeman’s work uses original photographs: self-portraits and images from her natural surroundings in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instead of her work being shown at a local gallery this spring, she enlarged the photographs to three foot by four foot visual statements and created a public art installation in a hyper-personal place: the adobe wall outside her home. She has redefined her wall as a bridge, creating a common ground between her bold statements like “I CRY WHEN I SAY HELLO” and our collective societal grief and loss. Freeman took a great risk by making herself vulnerable and publicly sharing her innermost emotions, breaking the cycle of isolation. She has not only received immense positive support, but has also created a community platform for dialogue and collective healing. Instead of yearning for the-way-things-were with her body of work, ONE THREAD BROKE, Freeman’s installation encourages other artists to create “a kind of artistic independence that doesn’t need second or third-party support.” With her newfound liberation from the gallery system, she is planning to use her adobe “exhibition” wall for future shows. In adapting to the current climate of showing art, Freeman’s works became what they were always meant to be –- way-finding for our intimate emotional landscapes in a socio cultural moment where we are experiencing collective trauma.
Thomas Putzier also relied on autobiography and his personal lexicon of symbolism to draw corollaries between his experience of oppression as a queer body in rural/suburban America, and modern forms and representations of fascism in society; via 3D renderings of architectural sculptures, music videos, and interactive remixes of capitalist-driven media imagery overlaid with propagandistic slogans. Putzier is a conceptual artist unpacking iconography within personal and communal histories of trauma to question the purpose of coercive power structures and the systems that reinforce their existence. Originally planning to create a site-specific sculptural installation around debt at a university gallery, once the show was canceled, Putzier completely reimagined his body of work as Ruined Country, an interactive online world and feature-length experimental film about the absurdity of capitalism and white supremacy from the perspective of a life lived in a rural environment and experienced online. Editing together the feature-length film using the structures and formalism of social media–square aspect ratio, 59-second video clips, and by including the interface in the imagery, Putzier is critiquing the current systems of neoliberal media control by making their somewhat invisible constraints the subject of the work.
Lizzie Thibodeau investigates another system of control, generational family abuse. Through her conceptual work, she shifts her narrative from victim to survivor by utilizing healing techniques of repetition, collection, and documentation. Thibodeau delves into her family history to unearth memories that manifest in her body of work, Echoes of Breath, revealing layers of material, layers of time, and layers of decay in the materiality of the pieces. These materials are discarded traces of everyday occurrences in her life such as dryer sheets or eggshells, but the way she delicately assembles them–such as sewing a large-scale quilt made of fragile dryer sheets in her piece Laundry–mimics the obsessive repetitive gestures that manifest to mask or heal from problematic memories. She uses these repetitive gestures to create objects of beauty, such as the meticulous knots that comprise her forty-foot-long “Red Ribbon” piece. This ribbon work symbolizes protection over her current homelife through using the repetitive knotting gesture to build a metaphorical escape route from the cyclical effects of generational abuse.
Kristina Berry is a formerly incarcerated multimedia artist, who utilizes the formal structures from her experience with incarceration to shift her narrative from pain to comfort. The rectangular form found in cell bars, the UPC codes she would draw from commissary products, and the stripes on her prison uniforms are all the subject matter of her quilt constructed from uniforms and fabric, “Where Do I Find Comfort”. What was once a triggering shape has now become quite literally the pattern embedded within an object that provides comfort. There is a feminist reclamation of traditional “women’s work” in putting vision and artistry into quilt-making. This is present in both Thibodeau and Berry’s work. Berry also engages with the rose form; while incarcerated, she would tend the prison rose garden as a form of therapy. A rose motif appears throughout her body of work Out of Darkness, in 2D representations via paintings, and 3D in her quilt and participatory installation, encouraging the audience to take a rose to connect with a feeling of acceptance and caring.
As Rumi says, “This outward spring and garden are a reflection of the inward garden.” Tending our metaphorical garden of roses encapsulates how we can cross over the next threshold of culture; reconnecting with ourselves, transforming our inner emotional landscape through creative investigation and practice, using this labor to create communities of support, and allowing this communal vision to shine on our external environment and light the path toward positive sociocultural change.