Some Assembly Required
by Trinkett Clark
Some Assembly Required: Cumulative Visions
(June Ahrens, Elisa D’Arrigo, Carol Hepper, Nene Humphrey, Rebecca Smith)
January 20 – May 7, 2006
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College (Amherst, Massachusetts)

A work of art is all about the process of accumulation.  Artists—of necessity, and perhaps involuntarily —accumulate both internal and external information, a process that propels them, in turn, into the activity of making art.  In our modern material world, the vast physical accumulations in one’s life can further drive this process, as well as the desire to discover new ways to make palpable one’s explorations into the soul.  Indeed, transforming commonplace—even discarded—objects from one’s life into a work of art is a practice that first emerged centuries ago.  While this essay does not presume to be a comprehensive history of the collage—and its three-dimensional cousin, the assemblage—we should note that collages were created in twelfth-century Japan, in African and Oceanic cultures, and in the England of Queen Victoria.  The medium did not exhibit its true potential as a genuine vehicle for artistic expression, however, until the twentieth century, when the friendly rivalry between the two cubist giants, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, was in full force.

In May of 1912 Picasso validated both the process of collage as well as the exaltation of the everyday object when he rejuvenated a piece of oilcloth embellished with a pattern that simulated chair caning.  Over this, he painted some of his signature motifs—the glass, the newspaper, the lemon slice—and he framed the oval composition with a piece of rope.  Thus was born the first bona fide collage of the twentieth century, Still Life with Chair Caning (Musee Picasso, Paris), which charted new territory not only by virtue of its inventive media, but also be its tromp l’oeil nature.  Braque was not to be outdone in the race to interpret pictorial reality in new and inventive ways, and in early September, he bought some wallpaper that imitated oak paneling.  Gluing pieces of this faux bois onto paper, he drew a dish, a bunch of grapes, a glass, and the words BAR and ALE—and the first papier colle, Fruit Dish and Glass (Private Collection) was born.  Thus Braque took the illusionism aspect of trompe l’oeil one step further, while paying homage to the everyday object.  It was simply a matter of a few more weeks before Picasso pushed the process of collage into three dimensions with his preliminary relief of cardboard, string, and wire, Maquette for Guitar (October 1912), and its finished version, Guitar (winter 1912-1913); both works are in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Suddenly the gates were thrown wide open, and the idea of collage spread around the artistic centers of Europe, eventually spilling over to the United States.  In hindsight, it is not surprising that the technique of collage and assemblage converged with the veneration of the ordinary object.  Life was difficult.  World War I was beginning to rage, and most artists did not have a lot of money for materials.  Their imaginations were kindled by the idea of finding inspiration in the material world around them and bringing it literally and physically into their work.  The art form snowballed rapidly because of its immediacy and because artists were intrigued with using the “real” rather than its “idealized” replication.  The Russian Constructivists, such as Alexander Archipenko, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Ivan Puni, and Vladimir Tatlin, were working at the same time as Picasso and Braque.  They, too, were exhilarated by this newly sanctioned technique, and their “constructions” aptly demonstrated their assimilation of the concept.

The collage soon make its way into the works of the Dada and Surrealist artists, especially Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Hoch, Man Ray, and Kurt Schwitters.  They developed their own intimate language as they incorporated “ready-made” material in their work.  In the decades to follow, their younger Surrealist colleges Jean Art, Max Ernst, Rene Margritte, Jaon Mire, and Yves Tanguay adopted the technique of collage as well as the celebration of the prosaic, imbuing their work with a sense of ironic wit and mystery.  And then, of course, we have the vibrantly colored paper cut-outs of Henri Matisse, produced during the latter part of his career (circa 1931-1953).  While they do not employ the found object per se, these remarkable compositions are the result of Matisse’s “drawing with scissors on sheets of paper colored in advance, one movement linking line with color, contour with surface.”

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Americans were traveling abroad in droves; exposed to new aesthetic trends, American artists avidly joined in the fun.  From 1926 to 1933, Alexander Calder lived in Paris and absorbed the new ideas; he saw great potential in the ordinary, and he wholeheartedly embraced the use of the found object in his work.  Curators and art dealers were also watching these revolutionary events in art, and they were bringing the art—and even the artists—back to America (particularly in the years leading up to World War II, when many European artist sought refuge in the United States).  The American artists were hungry for some fresh insights and enthusiastically welcomed innovation.  To them, it made sense to rely on the humble object for inspiration; as they recycled it, they elevated it to a new realm.

By 1932 the American sculptor David Smith, who considered himself a painter first and foremost, was making sculptural assemblages using coral, shells, wire, fragments of wood, and even chicken bones.  The following year he began working in steel, using “found objects, agricultural machine parts of past function;” this material in particular served as a source of inspiration for this visionary artist.  Around the same time, Joseph Cornell was beginning to fabricate his boxes and collages, making use of assorted objects (mirrors, balls, apothecary bottles, clay pipes) as well as images relating to travel culled from postcards, newspaper and magazine clippings, and travel brochures.  These works transported the viewer into a magical and childlike world.

The legacy of all these artists has endured to the present day.  The list of artists who have worked in the medium of collage and assemblage is now extensive and global.  Certainly Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Eva Hesse, Richard Stankiewicz, Mark di Suvero, Nancy Graves, Yayoi Kusama, and Frank Stella deserve recognition for their achievements in creating art that focuses on the inherent properties of an often unconventional substance.  Taking this medium further today are Petah Coyne, Tara Donovan, Heide Fasnacht, and Tom Friedman, all innovators whose “assemblages” have expanded the boundaries of the medium and inspired others with their honest reverence for their materials.

This exhibition, Some Assembly Required: Cumulative Visions, brings us to the present with the multifaceted work of five contemporary artist—June Ahrens, Elisa D’Arrigo, Carol Hepper, Nene Humphery, and Rebecca Smith—each of whom employs multiples of a signal form in inventive ways that result in accumulated visions.  While each artist differs in her technique, their shared commitment to the medium and their respect for the handmade act as bonds that unite them all.  Their work also represents a social milestone as they overcome any stigma that may still be attached to an artisanal or craft-induced process and celebrate a medium that in earlier days might have been associated exclusively (and negatively) with a feminine sensibility.  The exhibition pays tribute to the patience and tenacity of these artists and the results of their arduous investigations.

These works are intricate and require scrutiny and time.  A viewer trying to parse the many individual units that make up the whole might find the task almost overwhelming.  Questions immediately arise: How could one person do this?  What is it made of?  How long did it take?  Why was it made?  What does it mean?  Each artist begins with a discrete form: sometimes a “ready-made” object that has a specific association or a function in our everyday lives, sometimes a form fabricated entirely from scratch.  Through a labor-intensive study of the medium and a process that involves addition, repetition, and manipulation, the overall form takes on a life and spirit all it own.  Each work in the exhibition represents an experience that is both physical and spiritual in nature; the “making” or process is as important as the outcome.  The artists are bound together by the intense, almost fervent quality of their artistic activities and by the collective courage that allows them to break rules and discover fresh avenues for expression.  Their aesthetic pursuits—which physically achieve a delicate balance between order and chaos—make reference to private, domestic matters as well as to public, social concerns, while also dwelling on such universal subjects as our ultimate human vulnerability.

June Ahrens finds much potential in the simple and discarded; she breathes new life into an eggshell, a bar of soap, a toe tag, or a safety pin as she inserts her independence from aesthetic boundaries.  She combines the formal components of composition and content with an intuitive appreciation of her materials.  Her work is poetic and ethereal and envelopes the viewer in its intimate resonance.  Indeed, Ahrens’s assemblages have had a profound effect on many people.  While she is now an artist in her own right, she also is a registered nurse, and from this experience has imbued her work with a distinctive humanity.  Drawing on her unflagging optimism and perseverance, Ahrens often conducts workshops where she enables children and senior citizens to work in union with the homeless and other socially disenfranchised communities.  She sees the therapeutic benefits that art can have, and she is adamant about galvanizing marginalized communities by inviting them to find their voice—and to dream a little.

The Wishbone Project, composed of thousands of handmade elements, began when Ahrens was reflecting on the physical and metaphoric properties of the wishbone.  Once the idea took shape in her mind, she turned it into a collaborative experience of hope and healing.  An ongoing project, the installation represents the aspirations of many.  Ahrens challenged each participant to ponder the concept of “what if” and to create a wishbone that symbolized an innermost wish.  The actual wishbone, made of malleable modeling compound, could be “no smaller that your pinky and no longer than the palm of your hand.”  Strung together, these wishbones now hang from the ceiling.  In calligraphic rhythms they twinkle and dance in space—a magical manifestation of dreams and visions.  In addition, the written wishes of the participants have been transcribed by hand onto long scrolls of Japanese paper.

For all of us, the events of September 11th, 2001, were an unfathomable and cataclysmic experience.  Ahrens, a New Yorker, witnessed firsthand the fear and grief that enveloped her city, and turned to her art for solace and inspiration.  Keeping her hands busy provided her with an anchor and ultimately led to The Healing Hearts Project, in which Ahrens solicited schoolchildren and adults from around the world to create a memorial to the victims.  Each participant made a hand-sewn heart into which was inserted a personal reflection about world peace.  Ahren’s goal was to produce one heart for each victim who perished that day.  The result, two thirteen-foot circles of hearts, has now been exhibited in various parts of the country since September 11th, 2002.

After completing this work—which took and entire year and required much dedication on the artist’s part—Ahrens retreated to her studio for contemplation and renewal.  What emerged was a series of installation collectively titled One After the Other, literally referring to Ahren’s improvisational technique.  One work, Step by Step, is composed of metal, pieces of mesh, and clusters of rusted safety pins (some open, some closed), with the individual elements suspended in loose configuration and pinned directly to the wall.  While Step by Step demonstrates the dualities of order and chaos, it also embodies the repetitive process that Ahrens finds both soothing and inspiring.  As the artist states, “My hope is that the viewer can experience a connection, recognition, and a reawakening through the integration of these simple objects.”  Provoking the viewer to confront subjects of pain and loss, fragility and survival, Step by Step is both delicate and visceral in its beauty and impact.

The same raw vulnerability helps to drive the art of Elisa D’Arrigo, whose assemblages are made of many handmade components working in unison to compose a whole.  Folding, shaping, and manipulating layers of wet, painted fabric around an everyday object, D’Arrigo then removes the item and produces a unique cast-cloth form.  She builds up an inventory of these small amorphous objects—each one resembling a vessel or a teardrop, a pillow or a biological cell—and it is when these distinct units are brought together that they come alive.  At this point, relying on improvisation and instinct, the artist stitches the individual “fragments” together using a glover’s needle that is sharp and can pierce through thick and bulky material.  The threads—often in contrasting colors—not only hold the piece in place, but also work like gestural lines in a painting and play an active role in D’Arrigo’s ultimate vision.  While they look fragile, the threads are quite strong.  They help to assert the molecular structures that often characterize her work.  Pattern, texture, and color also direct this artist—she is not afraid to experiment and she welcomes the occasional accident.

While some of D’Arrigo’s interconnected fabrications are almost geometric, with tightly structured cells or honeycombs that conjure up anatomical cross-sections or mysterious aerial maps, other work is less restrained and more rhythmic in effect.  One such exuberant fantasy is Inside Out #12, which teems with both unleashed energy and contained response.  This monumental work consists of tiers of elongated loops—surrealist teardrops that depend on gravity to bring them down to earth.  Rushing and cascading down the wall, they puddle onto the floor in random “pools.”  As they tumble, these organic forms gain momentum and change shape; by the time they have reached the ground, they are bowls—orifices—and are serene in their iterations.  Part of an ongoing series, Inside Out #12 confronts the cycles of life and propels the viewer into a state of joy and contemplation.

In Primal, D’Arrigo refers consciously or unconsciously to the age-old repetitive ritual that many of us performed as children—taping strips of paper together to make long colorful chains that then cheer up a wall or a room.  Composed of long interlocking hoops of fabric painted in primary colors, Primal recalls this activity, with each link hand-stitched to the next.  Two red “balls” are nestled on a blue “fishnet” that is draped over a large yellow form.  The artist states that in creating this work she was first captivated mostly by the process itself, but that as the effort progressed the work became deeply meaningful.  It became a personal odyssey or a labor of love for D’Arrigo as she delved into issues such as the poignant and interdependent bonds between a mother and her children, who careen in and out of independence as they grow up and become adults.

Made with meticulous diligence—devotion, even—D’Arrigo’s elaborate assemblages impart a sense of mysticism.  Indeed, the repetitive aspect of her working technique could be compared to a silent prayer.  Intuition and spontaneity are crucial to this artist as she fuses the secular with the spiritual.  With an intense passion, D’Arrigo addresses oppositions: each of her elaborate constructions projects the imperceptible poise between chaos and control.  The resounding impact is simultaneously challenging and intimate, ecstatic and profound.

This same transcendent energy is evident in the diaphanous creation of Carol Hepper, an artist who grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and whose experiences there have contributed a singular aesthetic to her work.  Not Native American herself, but rather the great-granddaughter of immigrant homesteaders, Hepper lived on a working ranch and straddled two worlds and two cultures—those of her own family and those of the Sioux.  On the ranch she was in daily contact with animals and the inevitable events of the life cycle.  She also was able to participate in activities on the reservation, attending powwows, rodeos, quilting bees, and dances, and in the process she absorbed some of the Native American mystical beliefs.  Hepper became acutely attuned to the spirituality inherent in her surroundings and came to share the Indian’s belief in the latent power of an object, no matter how humble.  Certainly the wide open spaces of the plains had an impact on the scale of her work, while the awesome power of nature, in both its violence and benevolence, had informed the direction she has taken, as well as her unorthodox choice of materials, such as bones, branches, and animal hides.  It is the hides in particular that have special significance for the artist, for skin has both external and internal functions and connotations.  It can be both a physical shield protecting one from the elements and a barrier that insulates and shelters the soul.  Ultimately, this artist is inspired by the potential kinetic energy that can be captured in these materials.

Arriving in New York in 1985 Hepper reacted to the city through a body of new work, which shifted slightly as it reflected her exploration into man-made, industrial materials.  While the foundation of this work rests with natural materials, she experimented with the physical torque and tension exerted between wood and metal.  Bundling branches of willow together in curvilinear configurations, she tamed them with copper or steel tubing, which gave the works a more assertive, impersonal presence than her earlier forms possess.  Connections might be made between this work and the sculpture of Naum Gabo, though Hepper’s art from this period is truly her own—it looks back to her roots and forward to her new life as an urban artist working in New York City.  In true fashion, it illustrates her persistent willingness to break boundaries.

In more recent years, Hepper has extended her studies with animal hides; since her studio is near the Fulton Street Fish Market, the fish skin was a logical next step.  She first obtained skins during her own fishing trips, but now she needs so many that she relies on suppliers to stock her with halibut, salmon, sturgeon, or whatever the catch of the day might be.  Hepper’s recent tapestries of fish skins dance in space, actively catching the light and shadows as they float in front of vibrant planes of color.  As with all of Hepper’s work, they are the product of intense physical labor.  First she dries and treats the fish skins, allowing their natural colors to emerge as they react to humidity.  As they dry, the skins shrink and become quite tough.  All of these changes serve as a guide for Hepper as she hand-stitches the skins together, placing their forms and shapes in rhythmic patterns.  With both Iris and Orange Sky, she experiments with light, tension, color, and movement while transporting the viewer into a new realm.  Suspended from the ceiling, the skins possess a radiant translucency that varies with different lighting effects, resembling the ripples made as a school of fish scuttles past.  Hepper has spoken about the churning, ever-changing nature of the fishes’ natural habitat, but the work may also be a metaphor for the volatile and tentative nature of our own environment and world.  Contemplative and evasive, theses luminous forms demonstrate the artist’s irrepressible urge to control nature as she activates her weightless visions in space.

Nene Humphrey is also engaged with nature; science, particularly our changing geography and the human anatomy, directs her work.  Once again the artist’s materials and technique are closely intertwined with her subject.  And like Ahrens, D’Arrigo, and Hepper, Humphrey uses a needle as her “brush.”  Her journey began in Portage, Wisconsin, where she grew up, and where the urge to make things with her hands was nurtured.  Humphrey’s grandmother taught her to sew, knot, and crochet; while they worked, her grandmother told enchanting stories that activated the child’s imagination and triggered her future career.  While in high school, Humphrey designed and sewed her own clothes, intrigued with the variety of textiles and colors.  In college, Humphrey studied painting, but she turned to the art of collage in graduate school when she realized that she needed to walk around her work.  As her assemblages grew more elaborate they emerged from the floor, and she became a sculptor.

Since arriving in New York in 1978, Humphrey has made a career as an artist and teacher.  She often resorts to her early talents as a seamstress while using the inner workings of the human body as an ongoing subject for her work.  Her innate curiosity has also led her to aesthetic investigations that address social concerns and other aspects of our contemporary world.  In 2002 she visited China on a quest to find a community where traditional textiles are produced and used in everyday life.  Traveling to Guizhou in southern China, she discovered an indigenous art specific to the Miano people.  As they have no written language, the Miao have invented an intricate and laborious form of needlework that serves as a visual vocabulary and is incorporated into their garments.  Elaborately woven and embroidered, the cloth is characterized by its indigo hues and conveys a mythological narrative of the Miao’s past.  Inspired by these textiles, Humphrey began a series collectively known as Weaving Geographies that recall the rolling topography of a map.  In these dense and sprawling pieces, she blends Western and Miiao traditions as she ponders the consequences of globalization and homogenization.  She is particularly concerned about what these tendencies may signify for the Miao people (and other insulated and insular societies) in terms of their political and economic future.  Ultimately she fears for the loss of a vibrant and enigmatic culture.

In one piece, entitled, Weaving Geographies, Humphrey demonstrates her scientific knowledge as she employs the cyanotype technique used by nineteenth-century botanists before photography took hold.  In this process a photosensitive chemical is applied to a ground (in this case, fabric).  When it is exposed to light, the chemical changes color and turns a deep indigo blue.  With this work, Humphrey has woven and crocheted together a sinuous web of blue and crimson fabric.  In some section the two colors work as one, while in other areas they are separate fields of color.  Indeed, this organic “tapestry” is a metaphor for the artist’s concern about the assimilation and destruction of a unique culture.

Humphrey has now fused her interest in maps with her curiosity about the human body, which she sees as a vehicle for understanding the world.  In earlier work she concentrated on elements such as the hand or the back, but her focus now is the human brain, specially the part of the brain that reflects the creative side of the mind, as evident in Every Force Evolves a Form.  Humphrey’s impetus derives from neuroscience, specifically, scans of the human brain that are taken by an electron micrograph (an extremely high-powered microscope that can delve below the surface, magnify molecules, and make photographic images).  Over these scans, the artist lays a sheet of paper and created a loose rendering or map, of that region of the brain.  From there, the work springs to life directly onto the wall.  In anticipation of this movement, Humphrey takes strips of organza, satin, and wool, which she hand dyes in varying hues of red, pink, and orange—the colors of blood.  The artist then wraps the fabric tightly around corsage pins, stitching it all together.  The result is an inventory of exquisitely fabricated forms that resemble dried rosebuds—or perhaps blood cells.  Pinned directly into the wall in loose clusters and configurations that simulate the rampant life of a molecule, these creations produce an immense microcosm.  Every Force Evolves a Form bursts with energy and hints at an indiscernible power that breathes and multiplies uncontrollably beyond the human eye.

Rebecca Smith also investigates subjects that are esoteric and concealed.  Like Humphrey, she is intrigued with maps, finding that they offer a potential passage through time or space.  She is also deeply interested in the human body, but it is particularly the hidden life of the psyche that concerns her.  She sees her work as a vehicle that allows her to explore psychological disorders and methods of communication as well as social issues.  Through the years, this New York artist has challenged herself with a variety of mediums and subjects.  Her early constructions in the 1980s were made of painted wood and allowed Smith to rearrange shapes, colors, and space to make witty and even startling statements about oppositions.  They are both physical and metaphorical.  By the 1990s, the artist was working with aluminum, steel, and household objects as she confronted domestic and feminist issues.  Her sculpture of this period, which includes an eclectic (and inherently ironic) mixture of materials, illustrates her willingness to try many possibilities in order to express her vision.

Today Smith is actively experimenting, but her newest work confirms that she has found the proper channels for her voice.  Her most recent sculpture is composed of interwoven strips of flat pieces of steel inspired by the metal cages that serve as protective window guards, especially in urban areas.  Smith is curious about the various properties that these cages convey.  Some of the cages are decorative, while others are confining; they certainly have provided the artist with much visual fodder.  As Smith states, “The grid structure could be underscored or undermined.  It staged an area in which to explore issues of openness and restriction; completeness and fragmentation, stability and disintegration.  They demonstrate the grid come undone.  There is an urban feeling about them—also a suggestion of the melted gridwork that survived the World Trade Center site after the conflagration, which was near my home and studio….  To me they hover in that area that partakes of image and physicality simultaneously, creating a particular perceptual frequency.”

Eusebius & Florestan II is the result of Smith’s extensive probing into the psyche of various artists who have suffered with manic-depressive and bipolar disorders.  She is particularly interested in the life and work of the composer Robert Schumann and the possible connections, supported by new theories in cognitive development, between psychological disorders and creativity.  Intrigued by Schumann’s alter egos Eusebius (the introvert) and Florestan (the extrovert), Smith translated her research into two sculptures (the first version is now in the collection of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo).  In Eusebius & Florestan II, the steel elements extend into an eternal, enigmatic space and provide both a contemplative and kinetic opportunity for the viewer.  This work also pays tribute to the late paintings of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who was fascinated by the layout of New York City, which he first encountered when he settled in America in 1940.

Like Mondrian, who employed colored tape in some of his late compositions, Smith has been using tape for several years in her site-specific drawings.  She likes the immediacy of tape as a medium and that she can work quickly with it.  Rolling, pinching, and scrunching it, Smith can control the line, color, and form in both her rigidly geometric compositions and her more improvisational ones.  She recently received a commission from the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Victoria, Australia, to execute four large tape drawings.  One is based on Nu Shu, the secret language created centuries ago by Chinese women.  This work is subtle in coloration and calligraphic in effect.  In another tape drawing Smith transposes into shorthand the first line of Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

In preparation for the current exhibition, it seemed only natural to ask Smith to execute a site-specific drawing; indeed, given the location of the Mead Art Museum, the logical step was to ask Smith to create her own interpretation of a poem by Amherst’s elusive Emily Dickinson.  The artist chose the poem My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun (#764, the Ninth poem in Fascicle 34).  Smith’s work, entitled Gun, depicts a copy of Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript, including the last stanza with the poet’s “alternate” words listed at the bottom, as they are in the text.  Smith states, “I chose purple and yellow because they are bold and confrontational like Emily Dickinson’s sensibility, and [these are colors] mentioned often in poems.   Purple—the color of ‘sovereignty’, the Queen, the setting sun.  Yellow (Dickinson says) the least used color by Nature—saved for (again) sunsets.”  One section of this tape drawing is a transcription of Dickinson’s.  The other is an abstraction that forces the viewer to confront the heart of a gun.  While Smith looks backwards to honor Dickinson’s poetry, her tape drawing also comments on the potentially devastating state of our society, both here in America and abroad.  Through her evolution as an artist, Smith has demonstrated an insatiable curiosity in her choice of mediums and techniques, and also the innate ability to give potent meaning to form.

For each of these artists, working is an intense exercise, a time-consuming and elaborate physical endeavor.  As each assemblage in the exhibition embarks on its chameleonic journey, it acquires its own mysterious persona and demonstrates the valiant commitment and passion that drives these five artists in their ongoing acts of self-expression.

© Trinkett Clark 2006