Culture and Starters: S.E. Nash’s Cultural Inquiry Through Fermentation

Etta Sandry takes a microscopic view of the concept of culture in the work of S. E. Nash

While listening to an interview with the artist S.E. Nash and other fermentation enthusiasts on an episode of KCUR’s program Central Standard, I was struck by the use of the word “culture.” Taken from the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary online, the definition of “culture” in a scientific context is the act or process of cultivating living material (such as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation. In the terminology of fermentation, this is the “starter”: a portion of food or nutrient substrate—wheat in a sourdough starter, for example—that has been colonized by bacteria that will enact the fermentation process.

S.E. Nash Lactobacillus Amongus Exhibition Installation at Plug Projects

S.E. Nash
Lactobacillus Amongus Exhibition Installation at Plug Projects

“Culture” is more commonly thought of in a social context, where the meaning refers to the development of human knowledge and the resulting beliefs, behavior, and social practices that are enacted to share and preserve that knowledge within a group. Both uses of the “culture” originate in its Latin root, “colere” meaning to tend or cultivate. The original use of the word referred to a knowledge of the land. As human history developed, the contextual meaning expanded to include the cultivation of the mind.

S.E. Nash’s work investigates culture through all understandings of the word. Beginning in 2015 with a show titled They/Them/Their, at Black Ball Projects in New York, Nash began incorporating micro-organisms and fermented foods in their work. Amorphous sculptures made of paper maché, burlap, and paint housed glass vessels of fermenting foods including kimchi and kombucha. Each sculpture is created with the specific fermentation vessel in mind and the color, form, and shape are informed by Nash’s interpretation of the spirit of the microbes in the food fermenting. Wall works such as An Incomplete Index of Bacterial Morphology gave the viewer an enlarged visual abstraction of a look under a microscope. Members of New York’s fermentation community were invited to leave jars of their personal ferments on a shelf in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition and Nash hosted programming around the process of food fermentation from initiation to consumption.

 S.E. Nash The stability of sourdough ecosystem during time is debated 70 in. x 48 in. x 36 in. Wood, polyurethane foam, cardboard, sculptamold, burlap, acrylic paint, acrylic sheeting, glass jars, sourdough starters


S.E. Nash
The stability of sourdough ecosystem during time is debated
70 in. x 48 in. x 36 in.
Wood, polyurethane foam, cardboard, sculptamold, burlap, acrylic paint, acrylic sheeting, glass jars, sourdough starters

These workshops, meals, and demonstrations are now a regular part of Nash’s work. The artist’s recent solo show Lactobacillus Amongus about sourdough bread at Plug Projects in Kansas City culminated in a bread bake and community potluck. These events stage the gallery as a site for inquiry and knowledge sharing while inviting people from across disciplines to come together to cultivate a new community of artists, fermentors, and others.

 S.E. Nash Propagated under peculiar technological parameters (1) 48 in. x 36 in. x 7.5 in. Wood, burlap, sculptamold, acrylic paint, glass jars, sourdough starters

S.E. Nash
Propagated under peculiar technological parameters (1)
48 in. x 36 in. x 7.5 in.
Wood, burlap, sculptamold, acrylic paint, glass jars, sourdough starters

In this work, worlds of culture collide. Cultures of microbes are actively fostered and cultivated throughout the duration of Nash’s shows and new networks of exchange are formed through the outreach and events that take place within the exhibition. Through researching the history of fermentation and by interpreting microbial activity, Nash’s work also explores human culture and social behavior. As a non-scientist researching microbiology, there is a tendency for Nash to personify the micro-organisms, even referring to them as “collaborators” in the work. For the artist, understanding the microbes becomes a way to “unpack how we relate to the idea of life” and a meditation on aspects of human behavior such as relationships, gender expression, symbiosis, reproduction, social networks, and group dynamics. Nash’s fermentation-themed work and related events invite participation into this cultural inquiry.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Tactile Rituals and Feminine Power in The Work of Shelby Burchett

Anna Harsanyi reflects on Shelby Burchett’s use of magick and ritual as Goo-Witch.  

ShelbyBurchett_Thesis_04_1340_c

Thesis Exhibition install. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Being in touch means understanding the people and the ideas that surround us. By touching things we form a deeper connection with the physicality of our immediate world. Touch is an intimate part of Shelby Burchett’s work, simultaneously both ritual and experimentation. Through  a tactile experiments and ritualistic installations, the artist conveys a sense of desire and mystery that prompts the audience to interact playfully with the materials at hand.  

Burchett’s installations invite the viewer to engross themselves in her experiments with materials like goo, organic fabrics, and fur. These are assembled in immersive environments, often seeping through surfaces or oozing out of multiple structures, daring the audience to touch them. Embodying the persona of Goo-Witch, a maker who works with symbolic objects in order to conjure sacred qualities into a space, Burchett presents installations that change over time based in large part on how the audience participates in their evolutions. Tactile experiments draw attention to the importance of hands in the making of magic, with its array of crafted rituals. Spaces are restructured manually, organic materials are mixed together so as to cast spells that aim to alter both the physical and the spiritual realm.

shelby_image_2

Goo Witch performance as a part of Flesh Crisis 2017 at the Drugstore. Image Courtesy of the Artist

When experiencing Burchett’s installations, the viewer is called on to alter their own perception. In a recent performance, Cord Spinning, Burchett spun cord for 3 hours, inviting others to add herbs and organic materials to the circular space she created. The herbs and colors of the spun fabric held symbolic value and were part of a spell, though the audience was not necessarily aware of their direct participation in a ritual. The process of adding to and entering parts of the piece formed a point of collective access that allowed the participants to encounter moments of magic through touch and physical creation.

In Burchett’s work, magic is experienced in the form of mystery or the unknown, a collective wondering that brings the audience together through their shared desire to both participate in and further explore the tactile experiments they are engaging in. This experiential quality empowers the audience, who is given an agency in their desire to touch and to feel, and drawn into the creative process.

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Using this approach to play and experience, Burchett further conceptualizes power and collectivity as inherently feminine qualities. In many magic practices, deities and spirits are female, holding symbolic and metaphysical importance as embodiments of power and wisdom. The spells that invoke them seek to produce empowerment in their execution. In Burchett’s work, the feminine is an essence, an object, a feeling, or an unnamed sensation—related to a concept that can be accessed by anyone, and is not necessarily gendered. Feminine in her practice signifies power, propelling this notion to a spiritual place where such qualities represent multiple aspects of our world, and are not tied to contemporary conventional social structures. This subverts the concept of femininity as female-oriented, rather allowing for it to be integrated into a universal sense of experience.

Through play, touch, and collective experience, the audience grows more “in touch” with their physical surroundings which allows for an agency in shifting and evolving the practical and the magical within a shared space or collective identity.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Hidden Metaphors of the (Clay) Body in the work of Kimberly LaVonne

Kimberly LaVonne’s conversation with Gisela Morales centers around the metaphysical history and presumptions placed on the bodies of women and considered through clay.

Kimberly LaVonne Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne’s work is an examination of the unseen body through ceramic object. Employing organic bodies both in concept and medium produces work with flesh and organ-like qualities punctuated with Illustrations of saint-like female figures, which denote a need for self discovery and introspection. Fluctuating as specimens and relics, her sculptures deconstruct the human form into physical parts of divine abstraction, revealing what is not real into distorted and faintly familiar anatomy. In so doing, LaVonne awakens a new sense of wonder surrounding the investigation of the body. One that acknowledges the human body’s tension between scientific endeavor and religious belief, and underscores the use of women in building western anatomical knowledge.

Kimberly LaVonne_Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Motivated by the dichotomies present in the study of the body, LaVonne combines forms and shapes culled from anatomy books, medical collections, and gothic curiosities with illustrated references to the narratives of saints and holy women whose internal organs were mythologized as religious relics. Knowledge of the organs and their functions has been driven by myth, wonder, taboo and stigma. Human dissection throughout much of western history was considered sacrosanct. In this way, LaVonne is drawing a direct lineage to modern science and the taboos that placed limits on it. Human dissection was normalized as medical and scientific inquiry by the Greeks in the third century but then saw its decline with the introduction of Christianity. The advent of Roman law prohibited the dissection and autopsy of the human body in much of Europe. Instead, Christian culture, predominantly in its Catholic strain, has consolidated its anatomical understanding around the cult of saints. In their bodies, saints are thought to be present even after death,, making their corpses a source of protection and magical power. This created a fascination with saint relics and funerary practices involving the body’s  mutilation and disembowelment. It was not until the 14th century that the study of dissection remerged as a valid pursuit. This is the moment in history from which LaVonne’s iconography emerges. Much like the earliest folios of Fasciculus medicine or da Vinci’s studies on the human form, there is something inherently romantic in they way she molds form with illustration. Using a high fire clay body, her work yields rich terracotta forms that transform this history and iconography into intriguing tactile objects, resulting in a collection of fragmented parts made whole by the female bodies they represent.

LaVonne’s sculptures appear as perfectly sliced specimens whose flat surfaces provide the canvas on which organ forms are personified by women. The illustrated figures illuminate how the objectification of women has been a conduit to systems of knowledge regarding human physiology. During the time period LaVonne references, european women, and holy women in particular, appeared not as agents of knowledge, but rather as the objects of knowledge itself. This dispossession of knowledge has created persisting power structures in which women are relegated to role of vessels and unwitting participants. By working in ceramics, the vessel of the work itself is a metaphor for this societal predisposition While male bodies have become proxies for universality, the sole significance of female bodies has traditionally resided in the uterus. In the service men’s need to uncover the mystery of human generation, the uterus became the prefered object of Medieval dissection. As a result, internal anatomy became intrinsic to the the female body. Female corporal obsession combined with religious belief collided in the bodies of holy women. Accounts of holy women’s hearts being mummified, framed, and transformed into relics are the type of curiosities permeating through LaVonne’s imagination. Within this context, LaVonne’s figures express a certain level of self awareness, At times the physiological expressions are serene, self empowered and inviting, while at others they appear introspective, uneasy and distressed. The juxtaposition of these images onto three dimensional objects provides a holistic point of view into the forces that continue to shape self perceptions of the body that oscillate between the physical, functional, abstract, and spiritual.

Kimberly LaVonne We Together Make A Limb, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
We Together Make A Limb, 2017


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Planning For A Future That We’ve Already Seen: Mark Raymer Constructs Dystopian D.I.Y. Narratives

Katie Hargraves discovers hopefully timeless cultural cues and science fiction as a potential site for renewed communication in her analysis of the work of Mark Raymer

In 1992, a report was commissioned by the Sandia National Laboratories and the Department of Energy (DOE) in the United States. This report has a particular challenge: the DOE was developing a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a location deep below the surface of the earth that would store the radioactive waste leftover from developing nuclear weapons for the cold war. Their challenge, and the reason for the report, was to highlight the danger of the site for 200,000 years into the future—the amount of time it would take the nuclear waste to become inert. They were planning for the fall of our civilization.

Mark Alister Raymer Hoopla, 2017 Textile, printmaking, drawing 7 ft x 5 ft

Mark Alister Raymer
Hoopla, 2017
Textile, printmaking, drawing
7 ft x 5 ft

 

Although less than 250 years old, the United States government constructed and continues to uphold a narrative that this country is an enduring institution. In commissioning this report, the DOE was acknowledging an inevitable fall. They brought together an impressive interdisciplinary team that included linguists, anthropologists, architects, geologists, and engineers to answer the question: How do we communicate meaning in a time when language cannot be deciphered, when the Rosetta Stone of our era has yet to be discovered? We are curious beings. Even the curse of the pharaohs inscribed on the entrance of a tomb was not enough to keep explorers from opening it thousands of years later. How then could the DOE develop an appropriate marker for WIPP that could be read 200,000 years from now?

I wonder often about the motives of science fiction. Why is it that people wanted to escape into a fictitious future when there is so much to work through in the present. While we must plan for reality rather than envision a dystopian future, sometimes that reality requires us to imagine beyond what we know.

Mark Alister Raymer Untitled, 2017 Textile, printmaking 8 ft x 7 ft

Mark Alister Raymer
Untitled, 2017
Textile, printmaking
8 ft x 7 ft

Mark Raymer’s artworks create a fantastical science-fiction future where “wildlings” (as the artist refers to them) scavenge the middens of a long gone society, one we might recognize as our own. These post-apocalyptic, intersexed humanoids have evolved as the children of men; their naked creativity is well suited to surviving in our wasteland, reusing satellites as indiscriminately as beer cans. His mountainscapes depicted in the pieced together fabric wall hangings are reminiscent of the concept art created for the WIPP report by architect Michael Brill: sharp stalagmite formations that protrude from the landscape with people wandering through them. The caption to one of Brill’s images: “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture…. This place is not a place of honor…nothing is valued here.” What would these post-apocalyptic humanoids think of our world? With Raymer’s work, we get a glimpse into how they might react, what they might value, and the potential danger therein.

In exploring Raymer’s artworks, I begin to understand science fiction. Science fiction is a dark metaphor for our times, not escapism. His sculptural installations, prints, and fiber works explore the act of translation: both the translation from printmaker to fiber artist, and the translation of late-capitalist society to science-fiction future humanoids. Raymer’s work is ultimately about narrative, each piece building upon the next. The same fabrics and imagery are repeated, a detailed illustration of a beer can is used as a collage element in a wall hanging and developed into a larger than life soft sculpture made of cast off scraps of fabric.

Mark Alister Raymer Burlap Beer Can Landscape (group), 2017 Textile, printmaking 12 in x 5 in x 3 in (each)

Mark Alister Raymer
Burlap Beer Can Landscape (group), 2017
Textile, printmaking
12 in x 5 in x 3 in (each)

Raymer’s materiality performs the worldview of the narratives he has created, attempting to forget the meaning of found material he uses to construct the work. A burlap sack is used for its tactile qualities, but stripped of its class and labor material histories. Quilts are cut apart and collaged for their color palettes while attempting to ignore their gendered history. Detritus, and the cultural baggage that comes along with his chosen material, is decontextualized and expected to be experienced right alongside the preciousness of the printed image. The material construction of the works play out this desire: the prints are meticulous and detailed, where the fiber works are hacked together, appearing to be made with urgency. Yet, Raymer’s work misses a richness by not engaging with the cultural meaning of materials and their context. We only have to look to history to know there is risk in decontextualizing material—the risk of the pharaoh’s curse and the risk of WIPP.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists.