Fragments of Figures

By on November 3, 2010
‘Feet on the ground’ by Jennifer Rasmusson

‘Feet on the ground’ by Jennifer Rasmusson

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player.
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
Act V, Scene V in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Jackson Hole, Wyo.-Inanimate objects contain memories. They have personalities, imposed by the persons who own them or view them; ask anyone who hands down heirlooms or collects souvenirs, anyone who describes an archetypal character by the clothes. Ask painter Jennifer Rasmusson or sculptor Jen Harmon Allen: the two will be in Jackson Hole this week to hang their two-women show at the Art Association, to teach mixed-media art classes and to talk about their work.

Harmon Allen’s serious, monochromatic installations couldn’t be more opposite from Rasmusson’s brightly colored abstract paintings, and yet the two became friends when Rasmusson called Harmon Allen to swap works. They hadn’t met, but the same gallery represented both of them. Harmon Allen agreed, she said, because of their shared interest in “fragments of figures.” The phrase depicts a piece she’ll hang in the ArtSpace Gallery, called “Mountain of Measure” – some 365 pairs of five-inch-tall plaster feet hiking single file up a set of imaginary switchbacks – and to some degree her other installation, “Armor Dresses,” that depicts the “little black dress” in iron fencing and ceramics.

Clothes, more so than other inanimate objects, imply an identity, or attitude, for their owners that they don’t necessarily control. For example, I’ve developed a particular style reliant on hats, scarves, boots and sportscoats (of various textures, colors and layers required by my mood or the occasion) that look good together, but I admit that I defiantly (however occasionally and subtly) attempt to provoke conventional attitudes on attire. On a recent trip to New York City, however – unpracticed and underprepared – I had my boot-cut-Lucky-Jeans-wearing ass handed to me first by Metropolitan Opera subscribers, then by swanky Greenwich Village clubbers and finally by a pretentious Greenpoint indie record shop owner (yes, “pretentious” is redundant, and yes, that diss hurt the most).

The threads meant to undermine highbrow and lowbrow up-nosery indeed earned attention, but rather than demonstrate that culture can’t be determined by income level or social expectation, I earned the distinction of being somebody “other.” The clothes had become confining.

I’m using hyperbole here to make a point about art in general: though I can find something relatable to my life in Harmon Allen’s work – or a common thread between the Jens’ artistic impulses – the application of artistic perspective to everyday dilemmas and experiences, like the act of writing an essay, pulls from the obscure imaginings of our minds workable approaches to living in a civilization. Rasmusson describes her process as a conversation, another word I find useful when describing the “function” of art in a math-and-science society.

The story told by Rasmusson’s work begins with a young artist interested in whimsical realism: inanimate objects detailed and portrayed over patterns found on wrapping paper or wallpaper. She held a particular fascination with birds, flowers and cupcakes that have a sort of scrapbook aesthetic. She told me over the phone that she found the idea of a cupcake levitating comical. The takeaway from those early years, however, was her use of texture, pattern and color. “Anything with great color needs to be painted, and maybe even exaggerated,” she said. After a very traditional art school education shaped her into “an art snob who didn’t even look at abstract work,” Rasmusson attended Dundas Valley School of Art in Ontario, where her classmates asked her if she knew of or studied any living artists. “I looked at Richard Diebenkorn and really got it,” she said. “The draw of abstract to me is it’s very hard. I love the challenge of it. And I like the pure elements, just color and texture and value.”

In place of the patterns she once painted, Rasmusson carries themes and ideas from one painting to the next. She uses plaster for texture, and because a “huge collage period” created a cache of paper, photographs and found objects, she occasionally pulls some of those materials into her new work. “They kind of become the language, part of the conversation of the painting,” she said, and that conversation involves a lot of listening and compromising with the materials until she feels she created something that’s always been there. “If I can make a painting look like it’s coming out of the surface, instead of painted on top of the surface, then that’s successful,” she said.

Though she doesn’t want to peg herself as an abstract or a realistic artist, the collection she’s bringing to the Art Association is “very abstract,” she said, with some figurative works, as well. She created 10 pieces over the last year, originally interested in pursuing walking and movement as the overarching theme, while creating individual narratives for each piece, represented in the textures. But because she worked simultaneously on all 10, she saw the textures overlapping, so she became more interested in the idea of memories, “how they change and overlap with other memories. And how they’re refined or more faded and have a deeper texture after that,” she said. “I’m using a lot of texture, oil and acrylic on top, and a lot of layering and pushing back and scraping back, and so I feel like it’s creating memories.”

Preparing for the Art Assoc. show, Rasmusson accepted one of Harmon Allen’s dresses “to live with while painting, and so that dress form kind of comes through in a few of them,” which seems odd considering the stark contrast between the dress – heavy, serious – and Rasmusson’s use of color and levity, but which also serves as a metaphor for the relationship between the two artists and between their arts. Rasmusson takes things from the world around her and tries to bring them in. She’s the kind of artist who paints things she finds pleasing, and challenges herself to represent them definitively, in a way that shares her enthusiasm, which might explain why she came to the impermanence of memory, that opposite of realistic art, as her subject. What doesn’t fade with enough time?
Harmon Allen doesn’t take the relationship as literally.

For her the work is about ideas that she wants to convey, about how we perceive or misperceive the value of things and ourselves. She finds the color in Rasmusson’s work inspiring, and she hopes to somehow incorporate some color into her installations – “the install” she said is the real art of what she does – but I think her enjoyment of Rasmusson’s work is more about returning her to the world of solid things after mining her raw material from abstract and academic contemplations on the human body. Harmon Allen is the one, after all, who suggested as a name for the show “Walking Shadows,” after the line in Macbeth offered as the epigraph to this story. Her casts in “Mountain of Measure”, bone white legs will also be walking shadows, being as they are cut off at the knee, only suggestions or memories of humans.

“Mountain of Measure” is derived from academic studies of the human figure. Harmon Allen wanted to make sculptures that depicted the spirit or soul of the figure instead of just the surface detail of the skin. She attributes this interest to her high school days as a dancer, when she discovered that the body could be “a signifier or means for sending a message or creating a statement.” At Wellesley, she studied under Carlos Dorrien, who made “tall figurative pieces in granite, just huge monolithic sculptures. He said something along the lines of ‘You describe the body better when you don’t give every detail.’ That really stuck with me,” she said.

While making plaster casts from a mold, Harmon Allen got used to the early renditions coming out broken or full of holes. Nonetheless, she found it difficult to throw the imperfect limbs out, and finally realized that the fragments were more interesting than “the academic thing that sits on a pedestal,” she said. “For thousands of years, people have been making sculptures of women standing on a pedestal.” She resurrected the broken casts and multiplied them, and now they will hang in ArtSpace in an attempt to capture “movement through space, capture time, and our bodies’ interaction with nature.” “Mountain of Measure” will take up the majority of the space, she said.

Her other installation will be a series of life-size dresses made of ceramics and steel, for which she’s developed her own “clay, body, glaze recipe,” she said. “Usually when you fire in a kiln, you just have clay in there, but I have steel fencing wire as my base for the sculpture, and I add clay on to it, and it’s pretty hard to get them to fire together and not get them to sort of want to break apart from each other.” Her recipe results in the steel and clay appearing to bond, making them look oxidized or aged underwater.

The idea for the dresses came to Harmon Allen in 2000. She’s always been concerned with the female figure, she said, and with a “somewhat feminist background” at Wellesley, became interested in the idea of dressing up to present an altered perception of self. I was thinking specifically about the little black dress and the power suit,” she said. “So when I made a little black dress out of steel and ceramic material, it ended up looking sort of precious, like a little treasure I found, but they also looked like armor, like something not comfortable to wear. I love the tension and beauty that clothing is on the one hand, but it also can control us and confine and define us in ways we’re sometimes uncomfortable with.”

Without being inhabited by a human, the dresses still suggest the female figure. They have an identity based on suggestion, almost as if they stole a woman’s shape from her. “I never felt like describing [the female figure] in full detail is the ultimate, the ends of my expression,” Harmon Allen said. “It feels like just the beginning.”

Rasmusson and Harmon Allen arrived Monday to begin hanging their exhibition at the Art Association. Harmon Allen is teaching a mixed-media sculpture workshop that began on Tuesday. Rasmusson will teach a mixed-media painting workshop on Saturday and Sunday. Their show will hang together until Dec. 30. Their works should be comfortable with each other by now, having hung together in the artists’ homes, though space may force them closer together than they’re accustomed. Viewers, finally, will have to determine whether to consider the pieces as individual works or as part of an ephemeral accident that takes in consideration the ideas of the works and of all the people in the room. Will patrons judge the paintings and sculptures in terms of their own ideas, as supportive or contrary, or will they think twice about, at the very least, tucking in and buttoning up their shirts for the Met Opera?


About Matthew Irwin

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