The leaves change into beautiful colors, awaiting their peaceful death; all the while we celebrate the beauty of life with our family and friends. Autumn brings about physical transformations in our world, as we admire what existed before, what exists now and what is to exist in the future. This November, several art exhibits showcased in both the Melville Library and Staller Center Gallery at Stony Brook University portray the experience of physical transformation within the natural environment and how they relate to memories of the past.
Artists Kathryn Cellerini, Alisha McCurdy, Roy Nicholson and Cui Fei explore transformations in life and how each of these play a role in the human experience.
Beginning at the end of the October, leading into November, MFA student, professor and artist Kathryn Cellerini exhibits a work of art that cues the audience to reminisce about their past. Titled “The (Barn)acle’s Identity Crisis… and other Bedtime Stories,” Kathryn’s work explores the transformation of physical experience to mental representation as well as the transition between childhood and adulthood. Within the gallery, Kathryn built a small room portraying the essence of her childhood in rural Oregon: a wooden floorboard with hay protruding from underneath is bordered by four suspended dusty Oregon barn windows, and a wooden monkey bar structure stands in the middle, covered in tulle, pushpins and bathed in dim pink and blue light.
As one approaches, it becomes obvious that this is a tribute to the innocence of childhood. Some choose to enter this transparent room, squinting, touching, and even attempting to climb the structure, as if it was a portal to the quaint realm of a child. By combining personal objects, such as the barn windows that represent her hometown past, with everyday materials (wood, pushpins, etc.), Kathryn creates a physical manifestation of her intangible memory, alluding to the transformation into maturity. In doing so, she notes that this is a mere representation of her perception of the past, and does not replicate the exact experience.
Kathryn explains, “I want my audience to walk in and be a character in this story I created… I built the environment the way I remember it, but it’s not exactly how it was in reality.” As time progresses, transformations not only occur in our physical environment, much like the changing of seasons, but also within ourselves: transformations of mind and body occur through life’s experiences. Kathryn’s exhibit acknowledges this idea by presenting an installation that takes the audience back to their youthful days, evoking nostalgia not only for that particular whimsical moment in the past, but addressing the memories of self transformations that lead up to this very moment in the present.
Shortly after the closing of Kathryn’s show, MFA student, professor and artist Alisha McCurdy sets up a naturalistic installation in the same gallery. Titled “Seven Hundred Thirty-Five,” Alisha uses natural materials to create a representational coal mining site/burial grounds for the 735 coal miners who perished during the time her father worked as a miner. In the gallery, Alisha lays dirt a few inches thick, covers it with 735 handcrafted cloth canaries stuffed with coal, and suspends platforms of fresh grass over the ground to create a symbolic memorial for the men that perished beneath the earth. The use of natural materials to pay homage to these souls is an allusion to the transformations that occur in life cycles. Just like the birth, growth, and the death of vegetation within each season, Alisha’s installation refers to the transformations that occurred not only in the personal lives of each miner, but also to the environment they excavated. In addition, the use of natural elements creates a more relevant understanding of what it means to be a coal miner: the smell of grass and local dirt, the view of lustrous coal brings Alisha’s memory of these tragedies into a more relatable context within the gallery itself.
Alisha explains, “We walk around and see the changes in the world around us, but it’s on a surface level: transformations are always happening underground as well… there is a surface and a subsurface, and through [the use of] natural materials I am able to communicate that.”
Like in Kathryn’s work, these materials represent a compilation of moments in Alisha’s life, alluding to her experiences with her father, a coal miner. Alisha’s installation reflects upon the transformations of the physical world beneath the surface, and cycles of life that had occurred beneath the ground in regards to the miners and their environment.
The Staller gallery is also showcasing two off-campus artists: Roy Nicholson and Cui Fei. The exhibition “Re-natured” explores different facets of nature, and is honored by each artist in a distinctive manner. Roy Nicholson recreates his vision of his own English gardens, keeping in mind the division between representation and abstraction. His works illustrate shifts along the line that separates representation from abstraction and refers to the uncertainty of memory. His piece titled “Floating Garden #1” depicts remnants of his garden in a conceptual realm. Roy’s work focuses on the blurred points of transformations that occur throughout existence, specifically in his garden.
“I do not necessarily do my paintings on site. I use the garden as a
source… Memory strives to achieve a specific representation of the past, but ends up creating a more distorted abstraction.”
Using the garden as a reference point, Roy is able to derive elements from both the representational world and the arbitration created within memory, bringing him closer to the intangible line that separates the two concepts. His work titled “52 Weeks II” is a series of 52 flower paintings that were each created within a week’s time-frame. Collectively, the paintings depict transformations that occur over the course of the year; the work reflects upon physical changes in the environment as well as portraying personal changes in Roy’s own life, such as shifts in mood during particular weeks. Beginning with an image of a flower in daylight during the summer solstice, and ending with a similar image at night, Roy’s work illustrates the transformations that can occur on a weekly basis. Although seasonal transformations are seen in his works, Roy is able to achieve a greater understanding of the forever-evolving world by exploring change that occurs within memory and experiences, which help conceptualize the physical world around us.
In the same gallery, Cui Fei uses natural materials to deliver a personal recollection of the world around her. Her piece “Not Yet Titled” arranges thorns she has collected in a tally-style compilation, which signifies the length (in days) of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The use of thorns is symbolic of her memories of the painful and horrid war that swept the nation. This work applies not only a direct representation of past experience in record form but also a portrayal of the emotional tribulations that arose from the event, similar to Alisha’s tribute to the coal miners. In addition to the thorn calendar, Cui uses branches and sand to create a calligraphic representation of language itself, while avoiding a distinct replication of any language. Natural materials are used to create shapes that may seem like familiar calligraphy, but offer no distinct communicative elements in regards to language, focusing on visual perception instead.
“I want to create a new way of seeing these elements from nature” Cui explains. Such pieces in the gallery explore the influence of natural elements on memory, transforming what may seem to be literal representations of textual language into a more arbitrary, visually captivating form. Overall, Cui’s application of nature outside of its environmental context allows the audience to draw new conclusions about the elements they have become accustomed to in everyday life.
As cold weather approaches, trees begin to drop their leaves and plants begin to die out, and we perceive the physical transformation of the environment around us. Artists Kathryn Cellerini, Alisha McCurdy, Roy Nicholson, and Cui Fei incorporate natural elements from the environment in order to explore various transformations that occur throughout life. Collectively, the artwork from these different exhibits honor the relationship between the human and his environment, and explores the significance of change in the physical world of nature as well as the representational world captured by the memory of experiences.