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Q&A: Through the looking glass with Lauren Fensterstock

February 27, 2017 // by Jaime DeSimone

Lauren Fensterstock transforms the Atrium Gallery into a cabinet of curiosity that expands her interest in natural history and personal collections, principally Holophusicon, an eighteenth-century natural history and ethnographical museum in London, and American artist Robert Smithson's Mirror with Crushed Shells, created during an exploration on the beaches of Sanibel, Florida. As she prepares to embark on this large-scale installation in March of 2017, curator Jaime DeSimone discussed inspiration, influence, and objectives with the artist.

Past projects have incorporated or explored ideas related to the landscape, nature, man, and obscure collections. Let's discuss how some past projects and how they either informed Holophusicon or illustrate an evolution in your work.

The most similar piece is The Order of Things because of its cabinet. It also relates to the bigger paper installations because they're sites, so there is the comparison of sites and “non-sites.” 

LAUREN FENSTERSTOCK, The Order of Things
© LAUREN FENSTERSTOCK, The Order of Things, 2016. Shells, wood, and mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery.

The story that I always tell is about when I first bought my house and started a garden. My ideas about nature were completely cultural. Ideas about garden design where grown out of my garden. I found this mirror that was allegedly developed by Claude Lorrain in my initial research. It is convex mirror to look at the landscape-it was a “cultural lens.” For me, it's an idea about never being able to see nature. All of these installations are meant to be looking at them through a glass.

Meet the Artist - Lauren Fensterstock. Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington. All rights reserved. ©2016 Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Washington

I was doing the garden stuff on paper and I kept coming across garden grottos, which were decorated with shells. I said I was going to make a cave and finally started to do it. It was a material shift from modular paper components to more permanent. From the cave came The Order of Things. The cave is a hermetic space, but the garden is a very social space. The shell grottos was the result of a huge network of exchange. You needed multiple people to do work by women. The quilling techniques is predominantly done by women. Some specified gender labor happening in what I'm looking at.

The Order of Things is part cave, part cabinet. I'm looking at picturesque gardens and interested in ideas of specimen collecting and man trying to organize, label, and control nature into a human system. But, at the same time, these stalactites is taking over, which evolves over thousands and thousands of years, but these are fake because I made them. So overlapping ideas of scientific, natural, and artificial. [See book name Michel Foucault's seminal 1966 book “Les Mots et les Choses”…different notions of truth in natural science.] The other part of this piece is the cabinet that references eighteenth-century collecting and by turning it into black it becomes a modernist sculpture, where references of Louise Nevelson's rhythmic black squares recur.

Describe your palette. 

I grew up in the '80s I was also into Robert Smith. I was always into gothic. Black is also a color associated with spirituality and a kind of otherness. It has this visual capacity so that some of the installations look like a whole or Malevich black square, so the black has the ability to shift between nothing and something, subject and shadow that is unique to the color. It's also mystical and inspiring and satisfying.

How did your own trip to Sanibel inform your piece at MOCA Jacksonville?

I was able to walk in Robert Smithson's footsteps and experience what his pieces might be like on site. We typically understand them as photographic documentation. I was able to bring back actual specimens from Sanibel, so the first floor component (tilted square of four slats like his with four mirrors), which is closest to Smithson's non-site, has parts inspired by him. Some elements are from that place of inspiration.

Lauren Festernstock: Sanibel Island from Joe Karably on Vimeo.

Where do you source your materials?

To me, even though I resisted looking into the history of shell collecting, it is what became so interesting to me. Some shells I've gathered on the beach. Some are refuse from meals. I live in Maine by the ocean and eat a lot of seafood, so some shells are records of past meals. Restaurants and friends often leave buckets for me. Several people who had loved ones with large shell collections have given them to me. It's an interesting network of shell collections. A woman recently sent me shells from Costa Rica. They're a way of sharing the experience with me like a postcard or souvenir. So the collection is a weird and arbitrary array of human networks…travel, culinary, etc.

Project Atrium: Lauren Fensterstock will be on view at the Museum March 18 through June 18.

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