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Caroline Lathan-Stiefel's work still resonates

February 23, 2016 // by Denise M. Reagan

Almost two years after it opened at MOCA Jacksonville, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel's 2014 Project Atrium installation Wider than the Sky is still attracting attention. In January, her work was featured in Articulate with Jim Cotter, a weekly TV arts magazine show produced by Philadelphia public media provider WHYY. Lathan-Stiefel's segment appears almost twenty minutes into the program and discusses how she incorporated her work into the monumental Atrium Gallery.

MOCA Jacksonville Project Atrium Caroline Lathan-Stiefel 3
Image courtesy of Doug Eng.

The site-specific sculptural work made of an array of mostly textile materials-pipe cleaners, wire, thread, yarn, string, fabric, plastic, and fishing weights-suspended from the skylight girders to forty feet below. A series of monumental, intricately woven curtains and several small segments include three-dimensional elements, translucent fabrics, and open areas that allow viewers to peered through multiple layers. Small, abstracted textural objects referring to the detritus of daily life (cups, plants, keys, cellphones, etc.) and textile “words” were woven into these layered panels. The floor-to-ceiling piece allowed visitors to experience the piece from each floor of the Museum.

Since 2000, Lathan-Stiefel's installation work has focused on rhizomatic structures inspired by marine and plant biology, as well as architectural and urban models. But the monumental space at MOCA inspired her to do something different for Project Atrium. The series features emerging and mid-career artists who create site-specific or site-sensitive works for MOCA's prominent  Atrium Gallery. Each installation is an active collaboration between the artist and the gallery's towering proportions-a challenge that often propels the work in exciting directions.

After her father suffered encephalitis in 2012, which caused temporary damage to his speech, she began to think about how the circuitry of the brain can be scarred and damaged and then “regrow” itself, like a plant. The artwork explores both the science and the experience of the brain-a kind of mapping of the neurological landscape, with all its fissures, colors, sparks, germinations, stoppages, and flowing circuits. Some of the embroidered words represent the first words her father spoke after his brain injury, words that became placeholders for many different things. The abstract objects could be seen as items from daily life that occupied his thoughts.

As Lathan-Stiefel said in her Project Atrium film, the shock of her father's illness and resulting brain injury propelled her to incorporate those anxieties into her work. Her father was still working as a doctor but had to stop after the illness.

“I think when things like that happen you don't really know what to do,” she told MOCA in 2014. “This is one way of responding.”

MOCA Jacksonville Project Atrium Caroline Lathan-Stiefel 5
Image courtesy of Doug Eng.

She entitled the installation Wider Than the Sky, based on Emily Dickinson's poem, which addresses the brain's capability to contain immeasurable vastness and creativity.

The Brain-is wider than the Sky-
For-put them side by side-
The one the other will contain
With ease-and You-beside-

The Brain is deeper than the sea-
For-hold them-Blue to Blue-
The one the other will absorb-
As Sponges-Buckets-do-

The Brain is just the weight of God-
For-Heft them-Pound for Pound-
And they will differ-if they do-
As Syllable from Sound-

“For me, it's playing with the idea of how something as small as a brain can contain such a vast array of thoughts and concepts, such an immensity,” she said.

MOCA Jacksonville Project Atrium Caroline Lathan-Stiefel 7
Image courtesy of Doug Eng.

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