Teresita Fernández: As Above So Below
MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA
By: Julia P. Herzberg, Ph.D.
Teresita Fernández, a MacArthur Fellow admired for such sculptural projects as Stacked Waters (2009), Seattle Cloud Cover (2004-2006), and Fire (2005), is one of the most outstanding contemporary artists of her generation working in the United States today. By embracing the subject of landscape as a sculptural possibility in a myriad of accomplished forms, mediums, and materials, the artist's extraordinary exhibition at MASS MoCA, As Above So Below, explores space, place, and time as perceived by the "ambulatory viewer."
For this long-planned exhibition, Fernández has created an extensive series of new three-dimensional drawings made with india ink on reflective gold-chrome panels titled Golden; three large-scale, site-specific installations: Sfumato (Epic), Lunar (Theater), and Black Sun; and two sculptures: Bonsai and Rorschach. The exhibition's curator, Denise Markonish, rightly asserts that this new body of work furthers the artist's inquiries into landscape painting, mining, and the connections between the cosmos and the subterranean.
Each work, regardless of size or format, aims to elicit an awareness that the intimate is always present in the vast, and conversely, the immense is contained in the miniature; so that the very big and the very small are inside of each other. As if in a container-each refers to the other.
Sfumato (Epic), the first work encountered upon entering the galleries, is a wall installation composed of forty thousand small hand-cut rocks of raw mined graphite with hand-drawn marks extending from each rock. This installation, which in its entirety spans eight gallery walls, is at once large and small, depending on the viewer's positioning and focus (read, act of seeing). I felt totally immersed in the sweeping compositional structure, which reminded me of a slow-moving terrestrial storm. The artist, who has used graphite in earlier work- with equal distinction in Drawn Water (Borrowdale) and Epic—refers to the mineral, once mined from enormous deposits in the valley of Borrowdale in England(16th century), and its use by Renaissance artists in their drawings.
In the next gallery, following the internal progression of the exhibition, the viewer comes face to face with Golden (As Above So Below), a grand work on gold chroming and india ink on three wood panels. This work, similar to others titled Golden, pulls you into the gold, reflective surface, making us the ambulatory viewer.
While walking slowly from one end of the sculpture-drawing to the other, we discover the details of a near, middle, and distant landscape--with trees, mountains, sky, and a dark subterranean ground- as well as our own image.
The subtitles of Golden (Obsidian Sea), Golden (Onyx Sky), and Golden (Obsidian Sky) alternately reference the sea and the sky. Each requires the same kind of attentive viewing in slow time from close up and from a distance. Golden (Obsidian Sea) features the outlines of large, dark billowing clouds streaked with rain above a miniature landscape so defined by the barely visible silhouettes of distant hills on the horizon line. The subterranean level, rendered in dark black ink, reveals tiny dots on the gold surface, suggesting breathing spaces in the earth. Golden (Onyx Sky) reverses the scale of the sky and the ground. The larger, upper area represents a vast, dark sky with irregular openings on the gold surface, reminding one of twinkling stars, as if viewed through a telescope. The lower area, drawn with lines and abstract figurations, suggests a lava flow. While walking in front of Onyx Sky and Obsidian Sky, the viewer's reflection appears as a moving shadow within them. Fernández conceived each work in proportion to the large size of the galleries at MASS MoCA. Visually and conceptually concerned with the relationship between the small and the large and the intimate and the vast, the artist produced very different sizes of gold chroming and india ink panels. She radically shifted the scale of Golden (Scroll l ), for example, to a height of 12 inches and a length of 108 inches. The narrow, horizontal landscape is separated into two scenes: daylight and darkness. As we move from left to right in front of the reflective surface, the images of rocks and their crevices fade, as in a filmic dissolve, one delicately highlighted by miniscule openings on the gold chroming surface. This work, similar to Golden (Scroll 2), seems to be inspired by Chinese landscape paintings on scrolls. Once again our eye follows the pitch black of the subterranean ground to the outlines of the mountains in the distance-a sublime scene with a partially stormy, partially clear sky, all in the space of one foot.
Among the very small works in this exhibition is the abstract sculpture Bonsai, a work of fused nylon and gold chroming, not much more than seven inches. While the miniature tree is not realistically formed, it is perfectly fabricated within the thematic proposals of Golden. Since the bonsai mimics the shape and style of mature, full-size trees, it is one of the very small specimens that live within or are contained as part of larger ones.
Black Sun, composed of thousands of translucent colored tubes, is suspended from the ceiling from a height of three stories. A row of windows on the upper level of the gallery wall casts light on the colored tubes as their shades change from black to grey to yellow, orange, and back again to black. The chromatic gradations are spectacularly beautiful. The installation compels the ambulatory viewer to walk under it, look upward and feel the allure and fascination of a changing sky. Similar feelings are aroused when looking down from the third floor, recalling the sensorial details of atmospheric variations from storm patterns to clear skies.
In Lunar Theater, shimmering glass reflecting beads made from sand (extracted from underground) were tossed by the thousands in very controlled gestures, forming undulating patterns on the gold floor. From one end of the installation to the other, the beads, suggestive of foam, appear as ripples under the changing natural light that enters from the wall of windows. Although most of the beads fell into the desired configuration, many rolled randomly into positions around the matrix, offering a perceptive experience of the water as moving sand.
Teresita Fernández has long been challenged with finding a language through which her sculpture would change the visual expectations of the sea, land, underground, sky, or minerals while still referring to them. And she thoroughly mines these possibilities in As Above So Below.