The erudite and talented Aspen Mays, at a gallery talk at the MCA
A very friendly reminder from your pals at MIR—the thoughtful Aspen Mays exhibition is coming to a close this Sunday, February 28th at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago! Please do take some time to visit this excellent show.
At the very least, her gorgeous, vivid assemblies will satiate your need for color (as an antidote to the very humble palette of Chicago’s winter mother nature). Yet, in a deeper sense, the visual delight will lead you towards the philosophy and inquiry that is at the heart of the show. It is also ravishingly pretty to breeze past her “leaves” on the gallery walls, which do rustle as you move past—Every leaf:
or to witness her meticulously gathered rainbows of books on Einstein, every book on Einstein available through the Illinois Inter-Library loan—Every book:
One of the greatest delights about living in a city with such fine museums is the opportunity to listen to wonderful artists talk about their personal sense of order and arrangement, process, and to gather the little sweets of their anecdotal generosity.
Just a few days before the Aspen Mays talk, I attended a fantastic “coffee and conversation” event led by photographer Adam Ekberg (photographed here near the Every leaf exhibit) (a blog on Ekberg is in the works—check out his brilliant cosmic works in the Elements of Photography exhibition), and our group toured the Mays installation. I was very excited to attend her talk to hear what she had to say about process, display, color, and language. I was also so curious about what the initial impetus had been to photograph every leaf on a tree, and so baffled that this had not been done before—it’s such a cleanly novel, jubilant gesture, with so much appeal, and it’s so curious that at least variations on this activity aren’t somehow part of our human rituals already. In all of these years with humans living alongside trees, many hadn’t thought before Mays of this sort of meditation upon a tree. I also immediately admired the cleverness of both works in the instillation, and the mixture of what I imagined to be ambitious, joyous feelings in the artist, tempered through a highly methodical process.
For Every leaf, Aspen Mays photographed every leaf on a tree outside her studio window—over 900 leaves/photographs. I had heard that she marked each leaf with blue tape when she was finished photographing it, to keep track of where she had been. What I didn’t know until the talk is that right before the epiphany arrived to embark on this labor-intensive and rather meditative project with the Sassafras tree (a “lovely way to spend a day,” remarked Aspen sweetly) (she also shared that the tree smelled very nice) she was sitting in her studio at Ox-Bow, and reading Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. From “Song of Myself, and she came upon the verse:
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,
Scattering it freely forever.”
She looked up, and the first thing that “took her” was the Sassafras tree outside her studio window. She thought, “This is the most perfect tree because it is the one near to me.” Because she photographed the tree throughout one solid day, and because the leaves are arranged in a non-linear fashion upon the gallery wall, you can witness varying patches of shadow and light in different areas of the composition. One of the other striking elements is the opportunity to really witness the varying shades and edges and patterns from leaf to leaf—some leaves are insect-bitten a bit, some leaves are a bit singed by the sun, some leaves seem like different shapes altogether. By not confronting the tree as a whole, the photographic subject matter is decontextualized in the current arrangement (the tree is actually surprisingly small, Aspen related, though she didn’t take a photograph of the tree as a whole). The spectator really can look at one leaf at a time, and can really see the lovely individuality and near-autonomy of each part of the whole.
I love the way she described the process as “lavishing attention” upon the tree! Mays felt that through the arduous process of trying to really capture each leaf, she could most clearly contemplate her humanity, as she feels she inevitably “came up short” in an objective, scientific sense—she noted, “Even with all the leaves, you still don’t have the whole story.” Perhaps there can’t ever be a distilled perfection, even in science—there is always “a hand in the photograph”—here, literally and figuratively. I enjoy that aspect of the work—it gives the photographs a real humanness, a less stylized, more immediate feel.
The two works, Every leaf and Every book work nicely together, and Mays related them even more explicitly, speaking to the idea of “leafs in a book”—indeed to record light on the pages/leafs so that we may read/interpret, and on the tree leaves so that they may grow. Also, the arc of color is a motif in each work which shows time passing in the varying shades and dappled light. Both works also made me think of fractals—even with my very pedestrian understanding of fractals, I enjoying thinking that each work showcases detailed “little worlds” which mirror and suggest the larger sustaining “body.” Also, as Mays articulated, it is a consideration of elemental interconnectedness—to think of the origin of the photographic paper upon which the leaf image is printed—the leaf/tree being the initial source of that paper.
The Every book project addresses our “seductive access to knowledge,” as Mays puts it, and efforts to arrive at a sort of “Universal Knowledge.” It was a cumbersome, involved process to track down, check out, and organize all of these books—over 2,000! (Throughout the entire project, she never received a late fee.) Over half of the books listed in the Illinois Library search engine were in warehouses throughout Illinois. She documented the process, and created the arcs of color-blocks through working with whichever selection of books was ready for her at the library at any given time; she photographed every single book that came through; she never photographed the same book twice (although some titles were entered in different ways in various parts of the cataloguing system, so some titles are photographed more than once). She wanted to evoke a sense of gravity through the manner in which the books are suspended between two chairs—the potential energy in the arrangement. (And the titles, too, are so fascinating: Gravity’s Rainbow, On the Shoulder’s of Giants.)
Mays wanted to arrive at a different portrait of Einstein. She also thought of the arcs as a play on how to describe light itself—to describe light in terms of color (rather than photons, etc.). A fellow member in the audience spoke intuitively about how the nature of the two chairs facing one another sets up a sort of “conversation.”
Mays also contemplated in both of these works the kind of knowledge someone outside the scientific community can contribute, for example to use the act of photographing in a cataloguing sense. I appreciate the accessibility in the works, and the evident “pure joy/ Of the mineral fact” (poet George Oppen). Mays: “The process of human understanding is to let curiosity be part of it.”
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Written and researched by Jessica Savitz.
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