MFA Thesis Observation: Linkages and Otherness Unveiled

April 15, 2008

This morning, I had the pleasure of attending an MFA thesis defense given by Nancy Rogers Ehlers in the Lee Gallery. This was the first foray I have had into the fascinating world of artists discussing another’s work, and one of the things I immediately appreciated was the tremendous amount of personal and technical effort that goes into the production of such an important a corpus of work.

Upon arrival, I was given a 1-page ‘artist statement,’ which I discovered after skimming it was an introduction to Nancy’s thesis collection in terms of intent, process, and take-away value. I think it’s important here to reproduce the statement in nearly its entirety because, not only is this simple page quite beautiful, but I can also tell it required a staggering level of introspection; and so it deserves to be rendered here as it was originally written.

Nancy begins, “My work explores the mysterious, the sacred and the day to day minutiae, ‘la cotidiana’ [the title of the collection]. I cull subject matter from materials found in and around my home, often while performing my daily round; experiencing life with my family and, in particular, the meaningful caretaking of my young son. From this vantage point, I launch into other conceptual realms where I explore themes such as spaciousness, pain, abjection, transcendence, decay, and the ephemeral. My pieces are created without a camera; rather, they are simple photograms [works of art achieved by placing objects on photo-sensitive paper and capturing imagery by exposing the objects to light for long periods of time].”

She continues, “In this practice, a kind of staying power, I have gone in, through, and beyond, rather than ignoring and moving away.” A sublime process, one I appreciate.

And finally, “I invite my viewers to contemplate the coexistence of seemingly disparate forces; how, for example, in the often mundane routine of the day to day, one can find an exquisitely vast world and be transformed.”

Nancy talked for about 30-45 minutes about her art, inviting us to stand and walk about the gallery as she pointed out specific pieces she wished to talk about, before taking us back to our seats and entertaining questions from the small gathering of about 15 people in attendance.

How does an artist discuss her work to an audience of other artists (for the audience was, I gleaned, mostly art faculty and art students…and me!)? Nancy had a small stack of note cards in her hand while she spoke this morning—note cards which were arranged not sequentially, it seemed, but by the color of the thick lines on the cards, which she had, at times, fanned out before her. She hardly referred to them at all. I suppose after living and breathing the work for months you only have the cards there as a sort of comforting presence, perhaps something solid to ground you while to take flight.

Nancy talked about two artists who were the most influential on her work: Adam Fuss and Susan Derges—neither of which I had ever heard of, but can see from the works I’ve linked to, how they helped shape Nancy’s schema. In addition to the obvious artistic influences she had, Nancy also mentioned the importance of a linkage she made between Tibetan Buddhism and the ideas of feminist, philosopher, and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva. Nancy latched on to Kristeva’s notion of ‘the abject,’ or that which disturbs identity, the system, order—that which we try to push away—the Other. Nancy employs tenants of Tibetan Buddhism, with its current trials with the Chinese efforts at suppression, to show how one can move from negativity (renunciation, denial) to a position of beauty.

Nancy arranged her photograms thematically in the space of the gallery. The themes she discussed which appeared in her work were as follows:
Daily rituals and routines (the quotidian, which relates directly to the title of the collection)
Vexings (these photograms were created from leftover food from her refrigerator. She mentioned that waste of any kind and its association with pain and frustration vexes her)
Buddhist figures (these were created from arranging scores of rusty nails which she found in her backyard onto the photo paper so that they resembled seated monks in the act of prayer or meditation)
In-betweenness (the feeling of swaying from atop a tree canopy. Also linked to Kristeva’s notion of the feminine experience and the feeling of abjectness)
Resilience (highlighted in how she took toner and conti crayons to the photo paper after exposure to mold and sculpt the photogram into something beyond the simple exposure of objects to light)
Exposure (the literal exposure of the objects to light to create the photograms; the choice to use photograms over photography as the medium; the personal and spiritual journey Nancy undertook in order to realize what her work wanted to be)

I especially enjoyed hearing Nancy talk about the personal emotional quest she undertook to get beyond seeing her work as merely objects placed on photo paper, to move past the process of making the work to discovering how it would be held by audiences, and how she might talk about the themes it addresses in terms of conversations happening in philosophy, feminist theory, and psychoanalysis. And while these themes were there and were acknowledged, Christina and Andrea brought up the important point that Nancy—by virtue of her journey having come full circle—had now earned the right to discuss the highly personal facets of her work, in addition to the high art discourse she invoked.

To me, after having just come out of a seminar with Victor about Ulmer’s Teletheory, it seemed as though Nancy’s committee were giving her the go-ahead to conceptualize and talk about her work as a true MyStory—as a commingling of the personal, the communal, and the academic or professional. And why not? Nancy overtly said that her artistic process underscored the importance of not only bringing out (unveiling!) the Otherness of everyday experience, but of wanting the audience to view her work, and, after contemplation, realize the existence of anOther in themselves. And of relinquishing control to it.

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