Dryers & Goddesses Take Erector Square

Courtesy Mike ShaheenErector Square was buzzing. But not in the historical sense. No metal sets or boys’ toys as far as the eye could see. 

Lucy Gellman PhotoIn building two, Jane Miller fussed with a plug-in for Square’s credit card processing app as she explained that, though she had earned the title of installation artist, she didn’t really like to stick to one process. Downstairs, Mike Shaheen was motioning to a photograph he had taken of his dryer with a fisheye lens, his near-giddiness for collapsing the very old and very new bubbling to the surface. 

Several steps and staircases away in a sweetly scented space, Daniel Eugene was showing his newest “Goddess” creations to a visitor, who nodded along vigorously as Eugene motioned to dog-eared copies of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller in the center of the room.

While each weekend of 2014’s City Wide Open Studios (read about the first two here and here) has had a theme, the last, named only after its location in Erector Square, seemed to be a lack of one.

But that isn’t to say it was lacking. The weekend drew its strength from a tremendous diversity of media on display, around 120 artists showing a delicious and consistently strong mix of photography, printmaking, drawing, painting, mixed media and collage, and installation.

Here is a mere sliver of Saturday and Sunday’s goodness.

From her studio in building two, Mary Lesser fully embraced the idea of experimenting with medium and theme, moving from her well-known Shoes, still on display in the studio, to several newer pieces and works in progress. Beyond several Hopper- and Crawford-esque images of American cities at the front of the room—works that had been manipulated in Photoshop, printed out, and then finished with printing rollers and etching ink—was a series that spoke to her desire to map a kind of narrative.

Literally. The paintings (below) include marauding red thread that has been sewn into the paper. As Lesser explained, the thread was intended to imbue the works with cultural and religious significance, binding East Asian mythologies of the Yīnyuán hóngxiàn, or Red Strings of Fate, to the Kabbalah, Theseus and the Minotaur and the Buddhist Baci ceremony.

”I’ve sewn all my life. There are all these myths about string ... and suddenly I needed a linear element. I love the fact that our world really is held together by threads ... by strings,” she said. 

Miller picked up where Lesser left off, catching viewers’ attention with an array of prints, collages and installations made of recycled materials.

Like her Books Without Pages, Pages Without Books (above), glued and bound paper tiles that were the subject of a 2013 installation in Houston. Made from pulped and pigmented Yale University Art Gallery brochures that were headed for the recycling bin, they spoke to an evolving theme about text in her work, one that cropped up again in her hanging fabric installation, integrating idiomatic sayings from scanned old English pronunciation cards.

Some of her favorites? “A pair of calico eyes,” “a yard of tattling,” “a rusty rasher of bacon.”

“When I do Open Studios, generally I do things from before and I show things that I’m currently starting to work on. I love text ... so it’s found text, reusing, re-purposing. Harvesting what’s left around. That’s the way I work. It’s my printmaking background, working in multiples.”

Working in a more conceptual vein with her sculpture-meets-installation was Martha Lewis, whose crumpled paper and India ink marker Branes delve deep into the world of physics and the beautiful, baffling universes we have on our hands.

“The universe is like a sheet of paper: there’s multiple ones ... they’re layered, instead of having a big bang. If one [universe] touches another, it crumples. It’s called membrane theory, and these are called Branes. I got really interested…. I’m looking at this piece of crumpled paper in my hand, and it looked ... like sculpture, like floating garments on a Baroque sculpture, on a Bernini or something. So I started mapping them, and it turned into something. There’s a whole mathematics to crumpled paper ... it’s very abstract, but there are some practical elements to it too ... knowing how things are going to crash or collapse,” she said.

That there was also something wonderfully futurist about her work made perfect sense. With the weekend’s collapsing of artistic boundaries—or perhaps, artistic membranes—came a natural collapsing of time and space. Like in this one:

Or take Photographer Mike Shaheen, whose pieces (below) bring together past and present, wacky and mundane. Using a mix of digital photography and Photoshop, at which he is remarkably deft, Shaheen has been able to produce scenes that reference a long history of the medium.

Courtesy Mike ShaheenIn photographs like Déjà vu (above) viewers find at once Hippolyte Bayard and Rosie Handy, Robert Adams and Joel Lederer with a sprinkling of Martha Rosler and Hannah Höch. Works like I Saw ‘Real Life’ And It Was Terrible (2013, below), meanwhile, have been internet sensations.

Courtesy Mike Shaheen“When I first got into photography ... I started doing something called the 52 week project, where you take a photo a week for a whole year. I wanted to explore other people’s works, I wanted to see what they do and try their techniques. And I wanted to do conceptual portraits. I started with the one with the camera to my head ... and I didn’t like it at first. I thought it was really gruesome. But the next day it exploded on the internet ... so I really started to explore conceptual photography, because I enjoyed making it. I like doing bright and high contrast eerie images ... I’ve always been fascinated by places you wouldn’t normally see.”

His sense of the origin story also stuck for Eugene, whose pen-and-ink Goddesses are his latest step in “communicating a level of artistic consciousness to the viewer.”

“Goddess mythology and goddess symbolism has been really influencing my work ... because of the emphasis in the goddess tradition of the unconscious, more mysterious and inarticulate influences on our lives. My work has been this process of developing a technique in improvisation, spontaneity, kind of a conscious manifestation through imagery ... waiting to explore that world that exists that’s waiting to be put into focus or waiting to be brought into a physical representation.”

And that—getting into the deeper story, that integral part of the art historical equation—didn’t go overlooked either. It was the backbone of CWOS’ third and final weekend, building on this month’s celebrated tradition of sharing process and production, form and function. With a series of curator-led tours and Net work, a site-specific commission by choreographer Rachel Bernsen and visual artist Megan Craig that required viewer participation—lots of it—Erector Square weekend played out like the last, perfectly burnished plate in a series of prints. It couldn’t have been acting alone.

And you can bet it left an impression.

“Like a 17 year old heading into a mature phase, Artspace’s City-Wide Open Studios seemed this year to hit its stride and spread some wings. It felt comfortable in its skin, a bit more sure of itself,  wanting to push boundaries, with some more capabilities and wisdom to spread across the city with more muscle and confidence.  The sunny weather helped. It was great to hear from many festival-goers that this was their favorite event of the year, and that they looked forward to it with anticipation.” said Artspace Director Helen Kauder on Sunday evening.

“I am especially proud of our new touring program, which allowed artists to have more in depth conversations about their work with small interested groups led by a knowledgeable guide. The reviews of the tours have been off-the charts fantastic,” she added.

To find out more about upcoming events at Artspace, visit their website

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