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Arts & Culture


Large in scope, tiny in detail

Perception of scale provides keys to new Mass MoCA exhibit


Contributing writer


Carrie Snyder photo

The installation “Sfumato (Epic),” featuring 40,000 small graphite rocks, is among the pieces that make up Brooklyn artist Teresita Fernandez’s new show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.


When Brooklyn-based artist Teresita Fernandez’s new show opens May 24 at Mass MoCA, it will take over the museum’s entire first floor.
But sheer size is just one aspect of the exhibition, “As Above So Below,” which offers visitors many perspectives from which to engage with Fernandez’s work.

The show’s main piece is an installation called “Black Sun,” composed of thousands of translucent tubes suspended from the ceiling. The work takes advantage of the viewer’s placement and the way the light falls in its presentation.

Another installation, “Sfumato (Epic),” features 40,000 small graphite rocks spreading across the museum in a swarm-like arrangement. “Lunar (Theater)” fills an 800-square-foot gallery with translucent glass beads arranged on a gold surface that references the moon’s influence on tide. The exhibition also features a series of flat panels under the title “Golden”; these are India ink drawings on reflective gold chrome.

Fernandez’s show focuses on both the micro and the macro, with the concept that any given work offers new discoveries depending on the scale of the viewer’s concentration. From afar, it can be one thing, but move in closer to any of them and tiny, intimate details create their own artistic landscape to be appreciated.

“Scale is extremely important in this work,” said Denise Markonish, the show’s curator. “This is done both by an accumulation of materials but also by the shifting scales of the work.

“For instance, in ‘Sfumato (Epic),’ from afar the work looks like a swarm across the wall, and closer inspection reveals it to be about 30,000 small pieces of graphite, each with a drawing emanating from it,” Markonish explained. “So from afar the work is like the universe, but up close the individual rocks almost become like landscapes on their own. The whole show goes back and forth like this.”

Fernandez said this is partly a result of her initial response to the museum. She marveled at its size, wondered how she would fill it, and immediately decided that she wanted to do a show that dealt with the idea of the miniature, an aesthetic she came to appreciate through her years living in Japan and her interest in bonsai.

“The actual definition of bonsai has nothing to do with its size,” Fernandez said. “It has to do with the idea of a living tree that is contained. A bonsai is defined by the fact that it is growing in a container. I started to think of the landscape as a container and my show as a series of concentric containers nested inside of one another -- so a tiny sculpture that fits in the palm of your hand, on its base, then in the gallery, then in the museum building complex, then within the Berkshires.

“You could just zoom out that way and think of all of these things as landscapes from the most minute, tiny thing that would fit in your hand to real landscape outside, thinking of all of them as containers of sorts.”


Landscapes through sculpture
From panorama to intimacy, all scales represent a landscape of some sort, and Fernandez plays with the traditional ideas about what defines a landscape. She invokes landscape through sculpture, for example, rather than painting. And her work is inspired by the processes at work in a landscape, the movements that can’t be captured in a painting.

“The show includes installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings, and in that sense they refer to traditional landscapes, but also … to eclipses and the magnetic pull of tides and the lunar cycles and the sea as an ongoing, almost cinematic event -- and meteor showers, times of the day,” Fernandez said.

“These all become a more expansive idea of what landscape is. It’s not just that framed vista, but rather the kind of slowly moving rhythm of this place around us that we’re implied in. I’m interested in the phenomenal aspect as well, more than just the image.”

Fernandez said her interests partly manifest in the form of timekeeping through nature — the night sky, for instance, functioning as a calendar and a mode of navigation — as viewed through cinema.

“A lot of my work really deals with cinematic conventions of seeing and imagining,” she said. “It’s almost as though all the works in a show are cinematic dissolves, appearing and disappearing, like all these framed stills from larger, more epic, phenomenal event.”

Her work is not a replication of anything but more the result of inspiration from the landscape and the processes it contains, rather than any direct reaction to it.

“The work is very much about the idea of what it means to make work about landscape representations rather than of landscape,” Markonish explained. “If you look back into art history, you get the Hudson River school in painting – these works about the heroicism of the landscape -- and then you get earth art, which was about literally making art with the landscape.
“Teresita, on the other hand, is interested in the fact that when we go out to look at the landscape, we can never quite take the whole thing in. We are making snapshots in our brains and then stringing them together like cinematic montage. So then the landscape becomes like a memory film -- and one that is about the act of experiencing the space more so than the actual physical features of the earth.”

Mandatory to this progression is the act of the landscape being recorded and processed by viewers, painters and photographers who directly experience the landscape. The experience is as important as the recording.


Artist and audience
The Mass MoCA show is the largest solo exhibition to date for Fernandez, a Florida native whose many professional honors include being the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellowship in 2005.

She says the viewers of her art are one of its most crucial components.
“I think of viewers functioning more like readers,” Fernandez said. “When you read a book, you construct something in your mind that has much more to do with your experiences than what the words are telling you. I think of my viewer in that way. I think of my viewer more like a reader, more like someone who’s walking, an ambulatory viewer who’s moving through a space constructing images that are actually quite intimate and personal.

“I’m interested in that line where the viewer/reader is somewhere between a spectator and a performer. You’re implied in how those things start to unravel and how they’re constructed and appear and dissolve. They’re not fixed images.”
So the perception of Fernandez’s landscapes, Markonish added, engages viewers in interpreting them.
“In most cases, you have to literally move around the work and have an experience with it in order to take the whole thing in,” Markonish said. “This is much like the notion of viewing the landscape. In moving around these works, the viewers become active participants and then can make their own montages in their heads, constructing their own films of the experience.”
For Fernandez, this means that the landscapes she creates are directly linked to the internal, imaginary landscapes of her viewers. It’s a collaboration between artist and audience in which Fernandez’s creations operate as a catalyst for internal world building, with the art just a part of a creative alchemy taking place at Mass MoCA.

“I’m after something that becomes sheer effect, where all the research and all the conceptual structure of it and all of the historical and cultural references become invisible,” Fernandez said. “All that’s left is this pure effect you’re responding to, without any need for an explanation. When you’re standing in front of the work and experiencing it, the work is actually very mute. There is no explanation. The narratives all fall away, and it becomes about just being there and whatever subjective, intimate exchange happens.”