The act of changing in form, shape, or appearance; a person or thing transformed. Specifically, transformation achieved through a narrative process—and the "relation of narrative to its objects"—marks the curatorial underpinning of this exhibition of new work by Jennifer Macdonald, Kate Moran, and Jim Hinz. At different points in their careers and possessing distinct sensibilities, all three artists share concerns with emotional ambiguity and intimacy, a fascination with the miniature, and an interest in mythologies of nature and culture. Moreover, each artist’s talent for the well-crafted and well-loved object deliberately shapes the form and content of their art.
The Secret Life of Things
For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced…understand all about it….
--Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
<Jim Hinz, video still from Dark Head, 2002, nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds, courtesy of the artist.
In the seven paintings and one animation featured in "A Closer Look 5," Jennifer Macdonald explores her preoccupation with decorative objects and beloved toys from her youth. Her collector’s mindset and fertile imagination combine to produce reenactments of childhood play transformed by adult behavior. Removing the taint of kitsch that surrounds objects such as stuffed animals, Hummel collectibles, and antique porcelain, for many viewers, Macdonald invests and, in the process, transforms these miniature props — which, for her, embody nostalgia and cliché — with elements of romantic melodrama, melancholy, and humor.
Macdonald describes her images as "investigations of an abbreviated, narrative form," pictorial fragments in which action is suspended between hesitation and decision, the inanimate and the animate. In this context, the toy becomes a narrative device used to relate a fantastic tale, a point of departure for the interface of imagination and memory and, perhaps, a surrogate for the artist herself.
What Macdonald has termed her interest in the "seductiveness of storytelling" reveals itself in miniature vignettes such as It’ll End in Tears and The Reversal with a disjunctive combination of scale, object, and action. In the former, creepy-crawly prey disturb an eighteenth century ménage-a-trois, perhaps as a form of moral retribution. In The Reversal, Macdonald again employs three characters to envision a moment of "sinister betrayal," underlined by a nearby coiled rope.
Kate Moran, Clearing (behind and before), 2002, oil on steel, twenty-one discs, courtesy if the artist.
The drawings are painted on both the front and back of large sheets of frosted mylar with enamel and nail polish. Each work possesses a formal delicacy and lightness of touch and color that in some instances emphasize the narrative’s innocence and naiveté, while in others mask its darker, more cynical motives. With floating figures set in vast expanses of space, the pictures form a frieze-like panorama that anticipates the artist’s experimental move into animation. Macdonald, by introducing real motion into her narratives, accentuates the concept of metamorphosis and transcendence in her works — the toy/fiction comes to life.
Ambivalence and intense attachments are recurrent themes in Brighter Death Now, a one minute and fifteen second animated tale of a lonely boy and bunny that suggests a grown-up version of The Velveteen Rabbit—that classic parable of childhood love, loss, and transformation. In Macdonald’s narrative sequence, the boy meets-, loves-, and loses- bunny theme is disrupted by an act of sudden violence that quickly turns into a tender ritual: the boy’s fetishistic attempt to preserve the spirit of beloved things and friends.
The painstaking, intimate approach the artist brings to her line animation—composed of 283 hand-drawn and colored cards—as well as to her paintings, imbues her imagery with a poignancy that complicates its pop effects. This attention to mood highlights Macdonald’s concern with heightened emotional states grounded in handmade, imaginative worlds.
You should lie down now and remember the forest, for it is disappearing—
no, the truth is it is gone now
and so what details you can bring back
might have a kind of life
--Susan Stewart, The Forest
An artist who moves comfortably between drawing, photography, and sculpture, Kate Moran has produced a number of objects for "A Closer Look 5" that utilize all three modes. Spiraling, literally, around the idea of the forest, in both its actual and metaphoric states, the works reveal a personal lexicon of circular forms that comes together in an investigation of enigmatic and haunted themes.
A deep interest in etymology shapes Moran’s art. For her new body of sylvan imagery, ideas of "clearing" offered a rich point of departure. Through an array of work executed in different media, Moran constructs her own experience of the forest as a place of fairy-tale enchantments, recollected childhood freedoms, and adult anxieties.
In folklore and literature, the woodland is typically the site of transformative events; an otherworldly place that induces fears and dreams in all who cross its threshold. As much as this romantic trope must appeal to Moran’s artistic imagination, it is her concern with the potential disappearance of the forest in our lifetime that gives the work contemporary, even political resonance. Evoking Susan Stewart’s poem, The Forest, Moran asks the viewer to recognize the significance of this world of shadow and silence and to contemplate its role in our lives from the perspectives of both youthful resonance and ecological ruin.
Jennifer Macdonald, video still from A Brighter Death Now, 2002, one minute and fifteen second animation, courtesy of the artist.
Moran is intrigued by temporal transformations. Using a tangible object either found in the world (a toy truck) or crafted by her (tiny pieces of wood carved and painted to resemble logs, a tree rendered in graphite, steel discs) as a foundation, she employs different visual strategies to contemplate the relationship between space and time. By translating each object’s physical presence into two- and three-dimensional representations — a photograph, a drawing, or a sculpture — Moran alters and complicates the viewer’s perception of the original object and its place in the world. These handcrafted narrative "fragments" suggest the artist’s concern with creative transformation and reveal her interest in symbolic pairings.
Significantly, in these terms, Moran’s photographs deceptively present themselves as drawings. Burning Hemlock, for example, originally began as a sketch of the top of an evergreen tree that the artist then set on fire and photographed. Printed on matt paper, the image acquires a charcoal-like quality and finish. Conversely, a tonal drawing of a monster truck wheel – absurd in its exaggeration — is derived from an earlier photograph of a truck jumping over hemlock.
This formal dialogue suggests how Moran signifies time and intimacy in her work. As she explains, photography arrests the moment while simultaneously suggesting change, "presenting an image of tangible things, only to dematerialize, as in the sensation of life passing by one’s peripheral vision." Drawings, alternatively, indicate time spent with an object.
Two recurring motifs in Moran’s art — miniaturization and mechanization — surface in Clearing (behind and before), a forest-like display comprised of twenty-one metal discs, vividly painted with synthetic swirls and slightly elevated above a square platform by metal rods. Referencing both tree rings and a toothless, felling blade, the arrested movement of the spirals produces a tension in which time is magically suspended. The playfulness and artificiality of the piece question the dual life and death cycle of nature, as well as the need for, act of, and consequences of clearing.
The meticulous attention — making, remaking, representing — that the artist brings to her object-driven fictions, parallels what Stewart characterizes as miniature time: "a type of transcendent time which negates change and the flux of lived reality." Moran’s forest is fragmented, reduced, and tamed in an attempt to be understood. In the process, it provides a psychological stage setting for private imaginings, past memories, and future hopes.
Shadows of Love
The day wants you living
And it’s not the last
Time to believe
In more than the past.
Andy with the dark head
Make something new
Keep your eyes open
I’ve shut mine for you
Keep your eyes open
I’ll open mine too
Keep your eyes open
I’m looking for you.
--Jim Hinz, Dark Head
in work that is both intimately autobiographical and ironically removed, pays homage to the indie-pop song as an art form in his installation for "A Closer Look 5." Evoking sentiments—humorous and solemn—about the mythology of romance, his extended, reconsidered cliché is articulated through a multimedia offering, loosely built around the concept of smoking.
The installation is composed of handmade objects (a model lung, a cigarette convincingly made from leather and parchment), altered possessions (fragments of favorite shirts transformed into cigarette packets and also used to decorate a grandmother’s craft project) and three "music videos," props from which fill a wall-mounted vitrine. The latter, which represents a new departure in his work, combines a patchwork of comical and affective images with a song-cycle that chronicles in true pop fashion a contemplative state of mind and a relationship’s painful end.
A melancholic, ambient strain runs throughout Hinz’s two instrumentals and three vocal pieces. Structurally simple yet emotionally dense, they range from the lyrical urgency of 17c, a reference to the musical patterns of the seventeenth century as antecedents of contemporary pop, and the creeping effects of a synthesizer in Lope, to the lulling incantation of Dark Head, with its reverberations of longing. The personal address of Dark Head and the a cappella I Am New, delivered by Hinz in a near whisper, lend a particularly intimate, sensual quality to these songs.
Like his handcrafted objects, the artist’s music possesses an endearingly homemade and improvisational feel yet one shaded by somber tones of experience. Archived in a museum-like setting, the videos, sculptures, drawings, props, and crafted artifacts document the artist’s attraction to relics of youth and souvenirs of love. In its entirety, Hinz’s effort resonates with themes of loss, addiction, and obsession.
With the dominating presence of Red Sculpted Carpet — a floor-covering the artist connects to memories of his family home that also evokes a hotel lobby or movie theater — the tension between private and public, emotional and analytical, becomes the feature presentation. The literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison defines nostalgia as an emotion that "laments the condition of loss, however imaginary or impossible its object of longing." In these terms, nostalgia plays a role in the artist’s acts of tender transformation—from the lovingly made objects and recontextualized family heirloom to the songs themselves.
While Hinz’s "pop canvas" is plaintively humorous, like a classic Smiths song, his visual and verbal expressions reveal archetypal narrative patterns — darkness and light, seeing and knowing, death and devotion — motifs he treats with a deft touch. One might puzzle over the relationship between individual works in Hinz’s installation, but its emotional claim on the viewer is undeniable. Sylvia Yount
Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), ix.
In addition to Stewart’s poem, Moran was inspired by Robert Pogue Harrison’s examination of the roles the forest has played in the Western imagination; see Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992).
For example, the forest is the place where the Velveteen Rabbit is made real.
Stewart, On Longing, 65.
Harrison, Forests, 155.
Andy Partridge used the term "pop canvas" to describe the "delightfully miserable" music he wrote for his band XTC. See Barry Singer, "Adventurous Punk of a Troubled Past," New York Times, Arts and Leisure (June 9, 2002): 28.