Jessica Meuninck-Ganger and Nathaniel Stern, colleagues at the Peck School of the Arts, took their kids on a trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo one day and came back with an idea for a collaboration. That was three collaborations ago, and they don’t plan to stop.
I can only imagine the conversation that day at the zoo. I am picturing a continuous loop of ideas and theory interrupted by chatter with the kids and pauses to watch the polar bear play. They would have been two families walking at various paces, passing groups moving in other directions, everyone having different conversations about different things while the animals moved in their enclosures. In the background the sky and clouds had their own rhythm. It’s a familiar scene at one glance, but there’s a lot happening on closer inspection. And that’s the way this collaborative work feels: a layering of experiences, moments, ideas, and intersections that teeter between mundane and complex.
Stern is a video and installation artist and Meuninck-Ganger is a printmaker. Although any description of what they do requires asterisks – their work doesn’t exist in silos – their collaboration draws on those specific disciplines, then veers.
“Surfacing” is their latest installation together, and it’s at the Lynden Sculpture Garden until March 24. In it, Stern and Meuninck-Ganger continue their fascinating exercise in layering printmaking and video one atop the other. Each of the six pieces in the small Lynden gallery is a framed, rear-projected video over which has been laid a translucent editioned print or, in one case, a drawing. The viewer sees a static black picture in the foreground and moving, color images in the background. The static image on the skin is taken from a moment or multiple moments occurring in the video beneath.
“Pantograph” uses transportation to convey the idea of layered moments. It’s four minutes in the life of a city intersection where rail, automotive, bicycle and foot traffic converge. The static image is a collection of moments from the traffic – an electric railroad car entering the frame at right, a woman guiding some children at left, a row of automobiles cutting through the middle. As you watch, moving images interact in conflict or harmony with the still image. “Midst” is seemingly less complex: the video depicts a man doing tai-chi exercises on a waterfront, his movements barely visible beneath a woodcut. In this case, a dragon’s form on the static woodcut introduces an element outside the literal. 3-D interpretations of the original woodcut hang on each side of the framed piece. Still more layers.
Other pieces depict a bowling ball striking pins, the Allen-Bradley clock tower, another street scene, and two seated subway-car passengers with their backs to each other. The video loops range in time from 15 seconds to 5 minutes.
Where Stern’s video ends and Meuninck-Ganger’s printmaking begins is fuzzy, since the two have traded off roles depending on the piece. They want to blur the lines between individual contributions and also between the two media. The image applied to the video gives the video a new meaning, and vice-versa. Each is a singular experience – neither video nor print but a distinct hybrid.
Someone viewing this work for the first time might not see it that way. You find yourself fascinated by the technique, so you’re aware of it and you’re trying to figure out its trick – when will the images line up with each other? Is there something I’m supposed to see when it does? Are there other sleights-of-art to watch for? And why was this particular moment chosen as the static image?
Then there is the blending of old media and new and all that’s implied with that. There is the idea of time stopped (perhaps a memory) and time looped (perhaps an obsession). One thinks of the “key block / color block” elements of traditional printmaking. And of the endless possibilities of a particular moment in time, and how few of those possibilities we usually perceive.
What are we to make of these images as a whole? Is it a fable about patience? About being watchful for the beauty in mundane moments? Each piece is different enough in tone, context and even technique that the overall experience doesn’t feel cohesive.
Ultimately, what I found most rewarding with “Surface” was the meditative experience it offered when I let my questions go. It was akin to finding a park bench to watch the world go by. Like most times I’ve spent on a park bench, it takes a while for me to empty my mind and just observe. The rewards come throughout the process, not just at one moment.
Adjacent to the exhibition space, in a porch whose windows overlook the snow-covered sculpture garden, there’s a lovely echo of this experience. The artists have created an installation here by using the windows as a membrane covering the landscape outside. Images drawn on the windows repeat static elements of the landscape in the same way they do on the framed pieces. This time, the movement comes from whatever happens outside randomly, but also from the viewer who changes position to discover visual alignments and misalignments. In a nice interactive touch, the artists have invited visitors to add their own images to the glass.
Meuninck-Ganger and Stern offer up a beautiful opportunity to shift our way of seeing. It is a more conscious way of seeing, to be sure. How often does that happen in the Age of Attention Deficit? The possibilities are exciting.