Today we offer up a guest post by artist Jonathan Monaghan, whose video work, Rainbow Narcosis, is featured in State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. You can view clips from the work here. –LD
Playing video games as a child, I was always much more interested in exploring the created environments rather than playing the actual game. Although cinematic in composition, my work perhaps shares more with these video game environments than cinema. With my video installations, there is no film, no filming, no actors, few edits, no dialogue, and usually no specific beginning or end. Orchestrated in a virtual computer space, my works act more as windows into another world, another dimension, a kind of alternate reality. This world is fantastical and bizarre, but parallels our own, where imagery of power, wealth, and authority are conflated with consumerism, science fiction, ancient mythologies, and historical works of art. For example, Office combines historical and contemporary depictions of wealth and power. In the film, marble busts of Baroque-era aristocrats mounted on props from the cult science fiction film Tron explode in slow-motion within modern office cubicles.
September is national Hispanic Heritage Month! Visit the current exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now and see how several Hispanic artists from across the country are celebrating their heritage, contemplating issues, and sparking conversations with their art. Here are three:
Catalina Delgado-Trunk uses traditional papel picado (cut paper) methods to create intricate artworks that draw upon her ancient Mexican heritage. Here she represents the Mesoamerican “Lord of Corn.” Corn and chile have been staples of the Mexican diet for hundreds of years, so naturally corn is an important part of the culture. In the Mayan tradition, the gods mixed their own blood into corn flour to create humankind. “I grew up in Mexico in the ’40s and ’50s when we were rediscovering our roots. We, as immigrants, come with three things: language, food, and culture. That’s the richness of the United States. A lot of it is trying to explain who I am as a Mexican.”
Michael Menchaca also draws upon ancient Mesoamerican stories to create his graphic works and video. By blending together pop images with iconography reminiscent of the Borgia Codex, an illustrated manuscript from southern Mexico that was created before the arrival of the Spanish, Menchaca creates a modern day reinterpretation of old stories and historical events, with modern Mexican migrants cast as the heroes. “A string of events led me to feel increasingly racialized … which led me to do some research on my cultural heritage. I want the line quality [in the work] to reference Mesoamerican codeces, but also mixing that up with cartoons that I’ve been growing up with, thinking about how to give new life to these old forms and how they read in contemporary 21st century.” –Michael Menchaca
Vincent Valdez more directly addresses the issues of racial conflict in the US. His series The Strangest Fruit pictures modern Mexican -American men in the posture of hanged bodies, their limbs seemingly bound, heads bowed, hovering in an empty space. The work refers to the largely unknown history of the routine lynching of Mexican and Mexican-American men in Texas in the early part of the 20th century, right through the 1930s. The fact that the figures in these works are modern speaks to the continuation of prejudice and hate-crimes against Mexican Americans today.
“It’s very important to me that they’re modern. It’s the idea of in America the noose has evolved into various ways. It’s not longer a rope over a tree, it’s a slow death of incarceration, drug wars, combat wars, poverty, lack of education, racial profiling, etc.” –Vincent Valdez
But, hey, if you can’t get here right away, we have prepared ways for you to experience State of the Art from wherever you are.
State of the Art on Your Laptop:
State of the Art in Your Pocket:
Check out the State of the Art app! This content-rich, user-friendly app is downloadable to your Apple or Android device and includes a host of information to enhance your experience of this one-of-a-kind exhibition.
No compatible device? No problem!
Museum guests may check out an iPod pre-loaded with the State of the Art app from Guest Services in the main lobby. Check-out is free!
State of the Art in the Cloud!
Follow @crystalbridges, or check out what other people have to say about State of the Art on Instagram and Twitter with #StateoftheArt!
Last night was the artist and sponsor reception for State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. Some 70 artists whose work is in the exhibition attended.
For those of us who have been working behind the scenes, it was a powerful experience to meet face-to-face the real live people whose names, bios, and artwork we have been working with for so many months. I had the opportunity to stand in the lobby and greet the artists as they arrived before the event, and it was truly a privilege.
In truth, it must have been just a bit creepy for the artists. Because their names and faces have become so familiar to us, we feel as if we know these individuals, and of course, they don’t know us from Adam. There were several times I welcomed an artist by name and was met with a look of bewilderment. Several other staff members described the same experience.
Another one of the true pleasures of this event was watching the artists meet and interact with one another. While some knew or were even friends with other State of the Art artists from their city or state, the artists were almost completely unknown to one another outside their specific regions. It was those cross-country connections that were so much fun to observe.
Case in point: here are (from left)Cleveland, Ohio-based ceramicist Kristen Cliffel, Cincinnati-based conceptual artist Terence Hammonds, Brooklyn-based artist Jeila Gueramian (center) flanked on either side by Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom, the Brooklyn-based duo Ghost of a Dream; then to their left, English-born, Kansas-based painter Mary Kay, and Tennessee artist Jeff Whitmore, all of whom have been dancing on the interactive dance stages of Hammonds’s installation You’ve Got To Get Up To Get Down.
When I asked the artists I met in the galleries this morning (many returned today for a more leisurely incognito stroll through the exhibition) what it was like to meet the other artists, I got variations on the same responses, following a brief moment of open-mouthed, wordless ponderment: “It was overwhelming.”
It will take time to gauge the impact of State of the Art: on the artists involved, on the art community, and on Crystal Bridges itself, our community and audiences. But who knows? Bringing these artists together here in Bentonville might, over time, form the seeds of a trans-continental artist community that could continue to thrive and grow, long after the exhibition closes.
Today is Day One. Stay tuned: there’s so much more to see.
By the way: Our new incarnation of the State of the Art website includes examples mini-pages for each of the artists! Check it out!
The opening date for State of the Art is nearly upon us. Today at the Museum we are gearing up for a media preview of the exhibition, then a preview for Members, and then the Big Day on Saturday, when everyone is invited to come in and see the work of these amazing artists.
One artwork that has been tantalizingly semi-visible to Museum visitors over the past two weeks is the large-scale textile installation It’s You, by Brooklyn-based artist Jeila Gueramian. This otherworldly installation will serve as the primary entrance to the exhibition, and it will definitely set the stage for Museum visitors, alerting them right off the bat that they are Not in Kansas Anymore.
Created of crocheted afghans, quilts, doilies, fabric scraps, bits of up-cycled embroidery, and just about every other piece of notions-store goodness you can imagine, It’s You is an entire world of its own. As you pass through, you’ll encounter the strange denizens of this new environment—bizarre, yet friendly creatures that might be plants, or might be animals. You can’t help but be delighted and surprised by this playful work of art, and that’s a perfect frame of mind for beginning your journey through the exhibition as a whole: open, curious, and prepared to be amazed, puzzled, amused, moved… are you getting my drift?
I had the opportunity to talk with Jeila as she was busily pinning and sewing and arranging her bizarre and wonderful artwork. I found her story to be an inspirational one. I’ll share here a part of our conversation. –LD
There’s such a child-like appeal to this work. You can’t help but be drawn to it!
I’m designing this almost like a Fun House or a Tunnel of Love. I want it to feel like this really fantastical thing. That experience of something to new, to me, is really childlike; and to be in the moment is the goal of my work—to bring people to just be there and observe. To let go of how they perceive art and show them everything is art.
Do you have a full plan when you start creating a work like, or do you just create all the pieces and figure it out as you go?
I wanted to half have it done, but also be able to be completely flexible at the same time and be able to work with the environment and change my mind at any moment. So I made a lot of small pieces that could be… it’s like a giant flower arrangement.
You used to create individual creature s and then light boxes that were like mini-worlds. How did you start making whole environments?
I’ve only been doing art since 2010—but I came to it after becoming a mom and it kind of completed my life in a way. When I was younger I did go to art school, but I just kind of put it on hold. I started to make animals out of special items and selling them and doing craft fair kinds of things. But then at the Wassaic Project, which is an art residency in upstate New York, I wanted to explore bringing those two worlds (of art and crafts) together, so I made these animals and they were very successful. And the next year I put in that I wanted to create the world that they came from. So I made an entire forest. From that I was offered a show in Allegra LaViola gallery (now Sargent’s Daughters) and she gave me an entire basement.
What I wanted to do there was bring people into this thing, so I said “I want windows into these worlds.” And I made these little windows, because you can’t make a giant installation everywhere. I wanted people to lose themselves in these tiny little worlds. And I love dioramas!
The challenge for me with this piece (at Crystal Bridges) was I wanted to merge those worlds together. I’m trying to take the detail of my light boxes and bring them onto the surface, so it’s a strange journey. This is definitely down the rabbit hole!
You said you didn’t become an artist until after you had kids, I’m interested in that connection…
I have two children one year apart. Before having kids, I worked in a design industry. I did prop styling, worked in film–fine art was never anything I ever thought I would do. I was not happy with my interaction with the art world. I felt like—“I don’t want to be around those snobs, I’m not part of that, forget it, I’m not an artist.”
So, having the two kids, it was this intense time of being a mom. Becoming a mom made me more of a complete person. When I was younger, I felt like “I’m just an artist.” Then I turned my back on it, and after having kids I felt like there was a balance that came. Because I have a family and I have art and that’s okay. I can just do what I want to do with the freedom of knowing I’m just doing what I want without having that “Goal.” I feel so lucky to be able to do this. Because it’s like building a fort. It’s like letting your imagination go and building a fun fort.
Jeila Gueramian will visit Crystal Bridges in October to participate in a host of public programs, including an Art Talk, an Art by the Glass workshop in Creature Creation, the Teen Council’s annual Fright at the Museum event, and Family Sunday. Check out our online calendar for a listing of upcoming events and programs with Jeila and many other State of the Art artists!
It’s International Literacy Day!
Today we celebrate great works of art in Crystal Bridges’ collection that relate to books and reading, and we also offer a couple of sneak peeks at works in the upcoming exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now with a literary theme.
As early as colonial times, images of books in portraits were symbols of the subject’s education and social status. Ladies in particular were often pictured with books to indicate that they were educated, accomplished, and genteel. There are several such images in the Museum’s Nineteenth Century Art Galleries, including James Peale, Sr.’s portrait of the ladies of the Ramsay-Polk Family, ca. 1793.
In Edward Dalton Marchant’s family portrait of Samuel Beals Thomas and his wife and daughters, the artist has associated all three ladies with the gentle pastimes of reading and letter-writing. The mother uses a finger to hold her place in a book, the younger daughter holds an open letter, and the older daughter has a book and sewing materials both ready at her elbow.
Mary Cassatt’s The Reader is one of the most familiar works in Crystal Bridges’ collection. Cassatt could be outspoken in her opinions, and advocated for women’s right to vote, as well as for the importance of education and social engagement for women.
Woman Reading, By Will Barnet, is another painting focusing on women and books, albeit in a very different style than Cassatt’s Impressionistic take on the subject. This painting is a portrait of the artist’s wife Elena.
There are several works from the upcoming exhibition State of the Art that relate in one way or another to book and literature. Two of them are already on view near the Bentonville Square.
Aspen Mays’s installation Ships That Pass in the Night draws its title and central motivating idea from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“Tales of a Wayside Inn”).
Nearby is Randy Regier’s NuPenny’s Last Stand, a mysterious faux toystore in which all the toys have been designed and fabricated by the artist. In an interview, Regier revealed that the work, and everything inside it, is based on works of literature or music:
“Each piece in Nupenny has a reference point to a poem, a song lyric, or a literary work that’s moved me. The pieces in NuPenny have been about Jackson Brown songs, Philip Levine poems, and William Stafford, Amy Mann, and even Rage Against the Machine, Cervantes, but that’s not something I expect somebody to know looking in the window at it. It was important to me to follow each piece through, that I would hook them to a lyric or a poem or a story that moved me, it gave me the sense to know when I completed the piece.”
There are works inside the State of the Art galleries that also have literary themes. No spoilers here, just a couple of hints of the diversity of works in the exhibition:
Consider Forever by Jonesboro, AR artist John Salvest, constructed of 4,000 paperback romance novels…
Or Brooklyn, NY artist Meg Hitchcock’s literal re-structuring of letters clipped from sacred texts:
There are many ways of marrying words and images. Literacy not only opens doors to the world, it also often opens windows into the world of visual art!
If you have come in or out through Crystal Bridges’ south lobby in the past couple of weeks, you have surely noticed the diverse images of birds that have congregated on the windows. This is Impact Proof, a work of art by Kansas City, Missouri-based artist Calder Kamin, for the upcoming exhibition State of the Art. Kamin’s work arises out of the artist’s love of the natural world and its animals, specifically “synanthropes”—animals that have managed to adapt to live successfully side-by-side with human civilization. She is also interested in raising awareness about the consequences human behaviors and practices have for the natural world. Kamin hopes her art will cause us to rethink our relationship with animals, and hopefully change our practices to better accommodate the animals with which we share the planet. Impact Proof is a good example. Window impacts are one of the main causes of death among migratory birds. When affixed to large windows, Kamin’s colorful decals serve to alert birds to the presence of an obstruction in their path, so they don’t view the window as empty space and fly into it. I talked with Calder about her work and her ideas for bringing art, education, and nature together. –LD
Why did you choose to focus your work on synanthropes?
I think it acknowledges the global effects we have created in nature. The fact that there are animals that are adapting to a human environment kind of brings some hope. It also shows people that nature is not something you have to go far away to see. It’s right in your backyard.
You have said that you think we need to rethink our relationship to nature, can you explain that a bit?
It seems the better off that we are, the less better off are many other creatures. Tigers and pandas, and elephants: those are called “charismatic megafauna.” They’re the big lovable animals that we all admire. But the fact remains that if we want the rest of the world—these countries that are impoverished—to come up, there’s obviously going to be less room for these creatures. Our first priority as humans is our own species. But certainly as we continue to prosper there need to be roads for these other animals because it’s the health of the environment. There needs to be space for these animals if we want to see a diverse planet. If we want to continue to be human-focused, then we’re only going to see synanthropes, and they’re not necessarily the lovable charismatic megafauna. They’re the cockroaches, the pigeons, the starlings. They’re the animals that benefit off of us, they may not be our favorite animals. So that’s why I’m rebranding synanthropes—we should also accept these animals because they may be the ones that remain.
The animals have been adapting to us, we just haven’t been adapting to them, is that what you’re saying?
We haven’t been sharing spaces very well. When we think of community we usually think of ourselves, and then maybe our immediate community and maybe the people that live on the other side of the tracks. We’re so disconnected as human beings, and we’re even further disconnected as Earthlings. We’re all in this together.
Nature can be horrible! It can be cold and wet and it can bite you. I understand why we want to be comforted and remain unaware, but what kind of world do you want to leave if you have even slightest interest in the natural world or planet Earth?
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the human species and the planet?
I have a very optimistic view of human beings. We are very special creatures. We should be capable of doing amazing things. It’s just right now our focus is somewhere else. Why aren’t politics and media cognizant of this crisis that’s happening? There needs to be a shift in perspective. If we’re invested in money and celebrities and all that in the media, we’re not thinking about the next generation and what we’re going to leave for them. So I’m trying to inspire the next generation. I’m trying to widen the net of my audience to include children and families so they can have conversations about why is this happening and what can we do to help.
How did you get started doing this work?
About three years ago my practice took on a shift. I went to school for ceramics, and it was replicating animals in clay. My practice has always been research based. I love to study and learn about the environment. But looking at my sculpture, nobody would know the kind of research that was going into it—I was just sculpting the animal. But I was walking to my studio and I came across a female kestrel that ran into a Plexiglass bus station. I tried to rescue it with the help of a nature center. It didn’t survive, [but I thought] what can I do? Could I help the nature center with their education efforts by being a creative person, and teach people about what is happening? Most of the time people just don’t know how we affect nature: we mow our grass, which affects the lightning bug population, and it’s depleting the milkweed so there might be no more Monarch butterflies. Or glass—not a lot of people know that birds don’t understand glass, they see it as a fly-through space.
So part of your work includes educating people about the interactions of humans and animals?
I feel like when people speak to me about my work, they learn something. So why couldn’t there be a way to see the art, you could learn something, and then you could take action?
An avid bird-watcher, Kamin encourages all visitors to Crystal Bridges to take part in the Audubon Society’s bird count by logging in to ebird and documenting the birds you spot on the Museum grounds. It’s easy to set up an account and start tracking your bird sightings! –LD
A large array of lights was recently lifted to the roof of the Arvest Bank building in downtown Bentonville this week. Occasional evening visitors to the Bentonville Square may not have noticed the lights because most of the time, they are dark.
However, once in a while … perhaps only three or four times in a night… a lucky few may happen to look up when the bulbs suddenly, unexpectedly burst into light: shining like an open eye in the dark for a brief 30 seconds before lapsing back into darkness. What those few have witnessed is more than just a random illumination. It is a visual documentation of a rare sea-going experience: a moment in which two ships at sea pass within viewing distance of one another in the blackness of the ocean night.
The bank of lights is one half of an artwork by Colombus, Ohio-based artist Aspen Mays, and part of the Museum’s upcoming exhibition State of the Art. Mays learned that all ships are equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) device that continually reports their position, course, and speed; and this data is publicly available in real time. She developed a system that would trigger an array of lights each time two ships passed within sighting distance of one another at night anywhere on the open ocean (excluding busy port areas). A dot-matrix printer, situated in the exhibition’s gallery, will simultaneously record the names of the ships, their position, and the time of each encounter.
Mays is interested in the relationship between seeing and experiencing. We see things every day, but we don’t always categorize that moment of seeing as a full experience. This artwork, titled Ships that Pass in the Night, creates—from the accident of seeing a bank of lights come on—an indirect experience of the ships’ fleeting, real-world proximity—something that, when it happens at sea, can be quite impactful.
Mays recalls: “I called the satellite company and tried to explain [the project]. The guy [on the phone] was an active Coast Guard member, and he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re out there for a week or two and you haven’t seen anything, and then a moment—and it’s this amazing moment and it’s also a little bit scary. It’s kind of… you’re not alone…’ He really connected with it.”
Once you know what the lights indicate, seeing them illuminated becomes something of an event, as described by Crystal Bridges’ Membership Program Manager Emily Ironside, who happened to see them light up one evening, shortly after their installation.
“After several failed attempts to see the lights, I screamed and jumped when I finally caught a glimpse of those beaming yellow bulbs,” Ironside said. “It’s such a rare and random occurrence, so the anticipation builds up when you walk by and nothing happens. Then nothing happens again. Then, without warning, BAM! They turn on and you feel this excited rush and sense of connectedness to the huge ocean world out there. It’s amazing.”
Emily also had an opportunity to talk with Aspen while she was visiting Crystal Bridges for the installation of the work. “There’s one thing she mentioned that has stuck with me,” Emily remembered. “She said the idea for this artwork came while she was stargazing with astronomers in Chile and the idea of actually seeing in the sky what they had set out to look for was like ‘two ships passing in the night’ – totally unpredictable. Her project has taken this literary, poetic term (from Longfellow’s “Tales of a Wayside Inn”) to the very literal with data tracking and visual representations. However, when the ship names print out, that unusual combinations of words are brought together by the happenstance that these ships actually passed—in the night, in a remote area of the ocean—within three miles of one another. This string of ship names often reads like a poem (“Sea Princess meets Mirsk,” for example) so it is taking the literal back to the literary and poetic.”
Have you seen the lights come on? If you did: how did that experience of seeing make you feel?
Our Guest Services team is hearing a lot of that question lately. You can’t blame guests for asking: there is, after all, a big yellow, red, and blue…thing…afloat in the middle of the pond:
Well, that thing is a work of art by Cleveland, Ohio-based artist Jimmy Kuehnle, one of the artists included in State of the Art. The work is titled Amphibious Inflatable Suite (AIS) In Captivity. When fully inflated, it measures some 40 feet long and 15 feet tall. It is designed to undergo a regular cycle of “exercises” during which it will gradually deflate and sink below the surface of the pond, only to re-inflate and return to the surface some time later.
At least twice during the run of the exhibition, Kuehnle will visit Crystal Bridges to don the AIS and it out on a human-assisted land excursion. Yes, the AIS is truly, as the title implies, a suit, meant to be worn by a host human (the artist) who will wear and direct the work when it is on land. This is, clearly, no small endeavor, and it requires a little (okay, a lot) of help from viewers and bystanders along the way. This is absolutely essential because, as Kuehnle explained to me, the nearly-400 yards of fabric that went into making the AIS weighs an estimated 600 pounds by itself, not including the weight of the blower that keeps it inflated and the battery that keeps the blower going and—let us not forget—Jimmy himself, at the head of the thing, doggedly hauling it along.
Fortunately, the AIS, which Jimmy refers to as a “species,” is equipped with handles all along both sides that will allow onlookers to assist in its movement. For Kuehnle, this interaction with the audience is as much a part of the artwork as the object itself. While he was here installing the work, I talked to him for a short time about the AIS and his unusual approach to the viewers’ experience of art.
LD: Why is the aspect of interaction and collaboration so important to your work?
JK: The joy has always been the struggle—in the figuring it out, the fiddling, the tinkering—with other people, and it never ceases to amaze me how emergent and spontaneous that behavior can be, even with complete strangers. People really want to come together and do stuff.
LD: Have you ever made a work like this one before?
JK: I’ve had some that are similar in size and form, but never on water. When I discovered that there was a very amenable type-one AIS in Arkansas, I emailed Chad (Alligood, Curator at Crystal Bridges) about my ideas to experiment with keeping them in captivity, and I got a permit for it and everything, and, well, I think it’s gonna work out.
LD: There’s a definite playfulness to the AIS: How important to you is the sense of fun?
JK: Very important. What’s the point of anything if you’re not having fun? Humans enjoy pleasure, we’re social creatures—the same as the AIS is a social species—which is why it needs that non-host human interaction. Fun is very important. Absurdity is very important. Life is absurd, existence is absurd, and it can be quite fun as well, so I try to combine the two.
LD: When you first talked with Crystal Bridges curators, you described yourself as someone who likes to break the rules.
JK: Not necessarily breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules, but breaking rules for curiosity and finding out. My experience shows that if done properly and with consideration, most of the time that works out fine. For example, I don’t have parade permits for the inflatable suit performances I’ve done in the past, yet when I see police officers, most of the time they ask if they can help direct traffic. Never have I had a police officer say “do you have a permit” or “what are you doing,” they’re just concerned that everything is done safe, that everyone’s having a good time … and they’re curious. For the most part, if people identify with the struggle and they see you doing something like that, they think: “wow that person’s really trying to do that, that must be important to them. Hey! They look like me, they’re a person. Maybe I should think that’s important! Maybe I’ll help them out.” I think that’s a natural thought pattern that happens to people.
LD: What kind of difficulties do you anticipate in moving the AIS out of the pond up onto land?
JK: It’s going to a quite difficult experience. This is a new medium—working with a body of water—so it has lots of problems. Many of them were predicted (such as the air tubes filling with water), but since we predicted these problems we have solutions that we’re going to put into place to mediate them. Our current plan is to leave it in its inflate cycle until I’m there to implement possible fixes. Of course, having it in its inflate cycle isn’t terrible, it’s just that I’m concerned for the AIS’s bone density as it sits in the water without doing exercises, so I’m going to do whatever I can to provide it with that inflate-deflate exercise.
Now, getting it in and out of the water—again, we have problems that we imagine may happen, but there are many problems that we don’t know. It will be difficult mainly because of the weight of the fabric—and there are those stainless steel bollards—those will be difficult to get over. But never underestimate the emergent behavior of non-host humans when they see such a large colorful object that is just beckoning to be moved. And since the AISs have evolved handles to facilitate this type of collaboration and symbiotic relationship with non-host humans, I think that everyone will be able to grab handles in its inflated state and kind of roll it over the bollards, and we’ll take it from there. It’s uncharted territory.
State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now opens on September 13, 2014.
State of the Art artist Randy Regier is a talker. He’s also a tinkerer, a thinker, a reader, a cynic, a seeker, and a comic. A conversation with him is an entertaining and thought-provoking ride that alternates between irreverent humor (like when he jokingly tells me he’s not going to become any “painter of light”) and touching, thoughtful moments (as he ruminates on his memories of his father, or on why books are important to his work). You couldn’t define or describe Randy in a few words. His work, too, defies simple description. NuPenny’s Last Stand–Regier’s work that was installed last week in an alley near Bentonville’s Downtown Square–offers up no explanation as to its origin, purpose, history, or meaning. One day it just appears: a diminutive toy store, looking for all the world as if it was transported there from the 1950s. Those who stumble upon the work and take the time to investigate soon discover that it’s locked. Through the windows, you can see the toys inside… but there’s no way to get to them. You are obliged to leave unsatisfied–yet piqued with a sense of mystery, frustration, nostalgia, maybe … even wonder. I asked Randy to allow us a few insights into this intriguing, baffling work.
LD: The toys inside NuPenny—and the shop itself—have a sort of mid-century space-age look, why do you reference that time period?
RR: Part of it’s this: this is a quote I’ve come to more recently by Camus. “Possibly a man’s first object in life is to uncover, through the detour that is art, his first two or three loves, in whose presence his heart first opened.”
I’m kind of a first-loves kind of guy. In the early 1970s, we lived on a small farm just outside of a small town in Oregon. No money. Period. My mom had 20 bucks a week for groceries. She’d drop me off at the Goodwill, and I’d have maybe a dollar, and I could buy whatever I could get at the Goodwill. So in my early formative years, I was buying toys from the 1940s and 50s. And those forms are all replicated in NuPenny because I fell in love with those toys.
LD: I understand that a lot of your work has a really elaborate backstory or fictitious history that you’ve developed. Is there a backstory for NuPenny?
RR: NuPenny didn’t start with narrative intentions. That said, each piece in NuPenny has a reference point to a poem, a song lyric, or a literary work that’s moved me, so it is about narrative, but it doesn’t all hang on one narrative thread. As NuPenny has been in the world, it’s developing its own narrative. It’s become much more like an urban myth because of the way it arrives and leaves again. I’ve always thought of it as something that’s linked to a classic Twilight Zone. I don’t really know why it’s here. It doesn’t have to mean any particular thing, it’s enough to me that people wonder “What is this doing here?”
No one goes into NuPenny. Even I don’t go in. It’s just like a dream. If you go in, if you break that plane, it’s not a dream anymore, you’re awake and it’s over. That’s why it’s locked. It’s also about desire. I have this theory that I’m working through: the best thing about desire is just right before you get the thing that you desire. Once you break that plane it’s like … hmm. Well. And on to the next thing.
I’m really thinking much more now about beauty and about how more of that would be nice.
LD: Where is NuPenny on that scale between beauty and that creepiness of the Twilight Zone?
RR: I don’t know that it’s beautiful. I find my most purpose when I’m working really hard, and when I look at NuPenny, I think “God that’s a lot of work.” And I know it wouldn’t be here if I didn’t really believe in it. I’ve made a few works that are really meaningful to me, but I don’t think I have anything that means as much as NuPenny does.
Beauty is a really difficult term in contemporary art. In grad school, you’re not allowed to bring it up, or you just get hammered. I’m wary of using the term “beauty.” But I think to try to make things that I see beauty in as their primary reason for being seems like a really good way to spend the next couple of years. I think NuPenny is beautiful in the sense that … I know people have approached it and they’ve been like ”Oh my!” Beauty does that. But a really bad car accident can have a similar effect. There’s something beautiful about those, too, there’s something wildly tragic and human. So by beauty I don’t necessarily mean the color yellow. It’s too early in this progression to know what I mean by beauty.
The overarching conceit of NuPenny—since the beginning—is a poem by Stuart Kestenbaum called “Prayer in a Strip Mall in Bangor Maine.” It’s first person, it’s autobiographical. He goes into a bookstore. He’s walking behind this old man…and the man turns, and as he turns to the door, he looks at Stuart and he says, “I love you”—only the man’s saying it to his wife, who’s going to another store. And Stuart says that’s the way it should be, love should be “spread throughout the world, shouted in our ears for free.”
So when I built NuPenny I thought—I want people to have NuPenny for free, I don’t want them to owe me a debt of gratitude, or to shake my hand, or to have to read my artist statement. By free, I mean it’s just theirs and they can take it or they can leave it and if they want to interpret it as something, they ought to; and if they want to keep that as a definition of it, they ought to; and I should never be the one who says “no that’s not what it means.”
So by building as much into it as possible, I thought there were as many avenues as possible for someone to have something from it that’s theirs.
Prayer in a Strip Mall, Bangor, Maine
by Stuart Kestenbaum
The week after Thanksgiving and the stores are decked out
For holiday shopping including a TJMAXX where what was
once too expensive loses its value and attracts us, there is a
store with a big yellow banner proclaiming GIANT BOOK SALE,
a seasonal operation of remaindered books, which doesn’t mean
that the books aren’t good, only that the great machinery
of merchandising didn’t engage its gears in quite the right way
and I buy two books of poetry and am leaving the store, the first snowstorm
of the winter on the way and as I get to the glass double doors
a bearded man with a cane is entering, he has been walking
with a woman who is continuing on to another store and he
has the look that could make him either eccentrically brilliant
or just plain simple and as I open the door and he opens the other side
he turns and says “I love you,” not to me but calling back to his
friend who is departing, only he’s said it looking at me, closest
to me, which is unintended love, random love, love that
should be spread throughout the world, shouted in our ears for free.
You can find Randy Regier’s NuPenny’s Last Stand in the alley near Tusk & Trotter off the Bentonville Downtown Square. Watch the square for more State of the Art art installations in the weeks ahead! Regier is one of 102 artists selected for the exhibition State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, opening September 13 at Crystal Bridges.