December 11, 2008


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What is it?
Currier welcomes New Hampshire installation artist

By Heidi Masek

Large, brightly colored and patterned panels are attached at angles on what look like two-by-fours in the glass- enclosed hall behind the new Winter Garden at the Currier Museum of Art. The assemblages obscure the main part of Newmarket artist Kirsten Reynolds’ “Forgotten Mistake,” so you don’t get the full effect of her entire work until you walk through into the Currier’s new southeast gallery.

The main “tower,” as Reynolds calls it, seems prickly. I wanted to crawl under and inside to explore but at the same time, there doesn’t seem to be an entrance and the idea that you shouldn’t touch the art in a museum is ingrained. Opposing reactions sound like what Reynolds’ wants her audience to feel.

Parts of two-by-fours look as if they stick out of the walls at various angles. You can step on or over patterned panels on the floor. “If this piece is about evoking curiosity,” and investigation, deciding where to walk is part of that, Reynolds said.

There are “strange and absurd things happening,” and it’s meant to unsettle, but “not in a mean-spirited way ... in a thought-provoking way,” she said.

Reynolds’ installation is the first of a new series, Spotlight New England, at the museum. Assistant curator Sharon Matt Atkins said a factor for choosing Reynolds was how her work responds to architecture. The museum reopened after an expansion in March, and “Forgotten Mistake” is the first special exhibit in that gallery. Her work also fills another series goal, to showcase regional artists with “fresh,” “unique” vision, Atkins said. 

“Forgotten Mistake” is probably both the largest installation the Currier has exhibited and the largest Reynolds has created.

Normally, Reynolds has only a week to build from her model and plans. She worked over three weeks at the Currier — patrons could observe construction — and she had help from teenagers in the Open Studio program at the Currier Art Center.

Each semester, a professional artist works with a small group of students who are serious about art through Open Studio. Until now, however, there hasn’t been a connection like this between museum exhibitions and those students.

“I think experiencing how one builds an installation full-scale is a far better teaching tool than just showing pictures” of installations, Reynolds said.

Since November, students have worked on scale models of their own. An exhibit of photographs of those models opens with a reception at the Currier Museum on Saturday, Dec. 13, from 2 to 5 p.m. They’ll be up through Feb. 16.

“There’s been a lot of layers to it,” Atkins said. Atkins said they want to continue to build a partnership between Open Studio and Spotlight New England, but it won’t always be possible like this for the exhibiting artist to lead Open Studio and use students as apprentices. The next installment of the series will be in the summer, with work by Gary Haven Smith and Gerald Auten.

While real wood supports Reynolds’ structures, much of her creation uses painted foam. Panels are mostly foam board, while the floor panels are wood. Necessary screws are hidden while structurally pointless nails covered by gray toy wheels stick out randomly. They suggest the structure is in the midst of construction or destruction. “Take your pick,” Reynolds said.

They also add more “cartoon-like logic,” as does the faux wood grain. Cartoons are “virtual representations of what we consider to be real,” Reynolds said.

Atkins said the display is included because of the way Reynolds manipulates materials, and because part of the goal of Spotlight New England is to make contemporary artists and how they work accessible to museum visitors.

There is historical reference in the contemporary-looking “Forgotten Mistake,” including its very whimsicalness, Reynolds said. During the Renaissance, events like the “Feast of Fools” were celebrations of “what wasn’t normal,” Reynolds said. “You had a lot of play and laughter occurring in some very serious public places.”

That’s echoed in “Forgotten Mistake”’s museum placement.

“I think, in general, art has taken on a very serious position in culture. It’s not often you see art as having a more humorous or irreverent quality,” Reynolds said.

Of course, a museum collection piece originally made to provoke may not “have the same quality of getting under our skin that it did when first created,” Reynolds said.

You can probably discover something new the longer you look at “Forgotten Mistake,” which Karen Tebbenhoff, director of public relations and marketing, admits to.

The patterns and colors on the panels are based on origami paper patterns. Reynolds had been using them in a series of abstract collages in 2003 about confusing “foreground and background,” “positive and negative space,” she said.

Combinations of patterns tend to disorient spatial relationships, she said.

“A lot of those colors to me seem very playful and kind of giddy. I think that quality of playfulness is important to the installation. It’s meant to be a little irreverent and playful and even absurd,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds looked at photos of buildings decaying in her design process — in particular, coal mining tipples, which look haphazardly constructed with chutes and scaffolding. Walls block vision or allow it, permit passage and don’t. They had the positive and negative that she was trying to get at, she said.

The curve of the wood to the floor has a Baroque structure — with movement like folds of cloth, she said. During the Baroque period, how an audience interacted with a sculpture was also considered part of the piece, she said.

Reynolds’ installations are site-specific and can’t be exhibited again elsewhere. She starts by creating a scale model at 1 inch to 1 foot. She combines paper with origami prints, sticks and foam core with hot glue. She looks at it for a while, then reworks it as one does to sketch or paint, she said. Each angle has to be determined, and precise measurements taken to transfer the model into a full-scale installation. Throughout “Forgotten Mistake” and her other installations are what Reynolds calls “biomorphic creatures.” They preceded her installations as a series.

“Every time I think about taking them out, it doesn’t seem right,” Reynolds said. They add a narrative quality yet elude “rational meaning,” she said.

It’s “very much, to me, like the world that we live in. If we think about it and experience it in that way in being fully immersed in both what we know and what we don’t know, there’s sort of a moment when that wonder is coupled with a sense of unease. I find that very truthful,” Reynolds said.

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