Tag Archives: Melissa Vandenberg

Arts

Through Line to a Third

The problem with binary thinking is that by reducing the world to a simple either/or proposition, we neglect to see a third option. In most cases, our experiences, identities, and worldviews cannot be simply categorized as one thing or another; more frequently these entities are mutually inclusive, existing on a continuum or in a dialectic, rather than a dichotomy. This third option—wherein two things not only coexist but are interrelated—is at the heart of Melissa Vandenberg’s work as an artist. Vandenberg’s practice brings together elements of right and left; historical and contemporary; North and South; masculinity and femininity; and ephemerality and permanence in such a way that highlights how these polarities reveal a third, interconnected option. Working in a wide array of media and subjects throughout her career, Vandenberg explores the borders of our thinking and makes us aware of the processes therein.

Melissa Vandenberg’s interest in the interconnection of various seemingly polar entities is rooted in her own identity as an artist. When asked if she considers herself a Southern artist, for instance, Vandenberg opts for a more ambiguous identification than offered in a simple yes or no. Rather, she demonstrates both an interest in embracing the moniker and a reluctance to truly identify as such, given her status as a transplant. Born in Michigan and having migrated slowly more southward through her education and work—completing her MFA at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and having worked in Indiana and Tennessee before settling into a faculty position at Eastern Kentucky University in 2009—Vandenberg is acutely aware of her status as a Northern native living in Appalachia. At the same time, having spent a decade in Eastern Kentucky, she recognizes the influence of the region on her identity as an artist, readily embracing the environment as a consideration in her work. Hers is thus a perspective of both insider and outsider, one who knows the area from having lived here, but whose native identity is tied up somewhere else.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Similarly, Vandenberg’s work cannot be defined by a particular medium. Her practice involves sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, and photography, and she readily embraces working in all of these forms. Not identifying with a particular medium, however, has made her feel alienated in many American art contexts until relatively recently. As she notes: “I’ll use video and photography [and I’ll] also draw. I’ll do performance. I’ll do installation. And I didn’t feel like I had a niche or home for a long time and I think that [lack of a particular medium] was frowned upon, not just from commercial venues, but just in general, as if I was indecisive. And I’m like ‘no, I’m equally serious about all these things and it should be my concept that’s leading the material choices anyhow. […] Isn’t that where we went after the 60s?’” Vandenberg’s identity as an artist could be defined as “mixed media” or “intermedia”, but she will also readily admit that there are clear connections between these seemingly disparate entities of her own practice. In particular, she regularly embraces fiber as the basis for her work, making large scale, soft sculpture from sewn textiles, using sewing machines in her performances, and even using cotton rag paper as the basis for her drawings. As such, her practice similarly defies the binary that an artist must either be understood as a medium-specific or multimedia practitioner, offering a third option comprised of both.

“Doublespeak”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

“Double-talk”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Looking at her work, it is readily apparent how her practice similarly engages with the dialectic between seemingly binary entities. In her most recent body of work, Vandenberg has created a series of triptychs comprised of “burn drawings,” which she has created by burning matches directly into Arches paper. In particular, her set of skull drawings, entitled Doublespeak, Double-Talk, and Red Vanitas, examine how two entities that are apparently diametrically opposed can actually merge to become one in the same, or an inclusive third. In each of these three works, two skulls look out in opposing directions, their metaphorical gazes fixed on something the other clearly cannot see. At the same time, their cranial structures overlap, merging them into a singular entity, one that is equally dependent on the form of the other in order to exist.

“Red Vanitas”, match burn and ink on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

For Vandenberg, this overlap and the dichotomy it undermines function to critique the extreme prevalence of binary thinking within our contemporary culture, both locally and world-wide. She notes: “I’ve been using conjoined metaphors for a while. I think [of the motif as reflecting] this political climate, the general divisiveness, [and] realizing, you know, the supposed right and left—and this is even a global situation, not just here.” Vandenberg’s skulls do look left and right and, yet, the two are ultimately part of the same entity. These works, therefore, call attention to the fact that the ideological and, even, the physical delineation of left and right are interdependent parts of a single whole. Just as a physical object cannot have solely a left or a right side—as there will always be a boundary on the opposite side—neither can a political ideology exist solely in one camp or another; the limitations of the polar opposite are, therefore,  essential to create a cogent definition. By conjoining the two entities as such, Vandenberg highlights the fact these distinctions in our culture are truly interdependent.

Vandenberg’s skulls not only ruminate on ideological dichotomies, but they also undermine the duality between past and present, or the (art) historical and the contemporary. For Vandenberg, this series of burn drawings offers an opportunity to consider the legacy of historical motifs and objects. The use of the skull makes a clear reference to the Dutch still life tradition of the “vanitas,” wherein the still life painter would include a material reference to death among the sumptuous painted display. At the same time, both materially and temporally, Vandenberg’s skulls convey a particular sense of the present. As previously noted, the conjoined nature of them calls attention to our contemporary historical conditions. Furthermore, the materiality of the burn drawing itself has a clearly instantaneous quality to it, one that is created with a meticulous precision in terms of timing, which imbues the work with a clear sense of the now. Combining the historical references with this notion of the present, Vandenberg’s work thus calls attention to the falseness of the dichotomy between past and present, revealing the continuum upon which both entities exist.

Vandenberg’s interest in combining seemingly dichotomous entities is not solely a recent venture. For years now, she has explored the limits of these distinctions throughout her practice, both literally and metaphorically. Geographic delineations, in particular, have been a consistent theme throughout much of her work. Just as her own identity as an artist has been shaped by time spent in both the North and the South, she has used her practice to explore the differentiation between these two regions. In 2010, for instance, she carried out her Middleland Project, wherein she spent several weeks traveling along the boundary between the Northern and Southern United States. The project offered a reimagining of American borders, highlighting the various identities that emerge within and across these two regions. As Vandenberg notes: “[t]hese are not your usual border states; semantically they are an amalgamation of the Heartland, the Midwest, the Bible Belt, just south of the Rust Belt and flanking the Mason Dixon Divide. They provide a rich yet fractured history as ideologies are constantly challenged from the surrounding North and South.”[1]

‘Middleland Project’, 10X14 digital photographs, 2010

Vandenberg documented her journey in a variety of media, including photographs and a blog  that she maintained during her travels. The resulting project is a series of images and texts illuminating the complicated and multifaceted expressions of regional identities that exist along the borderlands, demonstrating the ways in which people North of the divide share values and lived experiences with those South of it, while also noting the moments in which real differences are apparent. In exploring the line between North and South through this project, Vandenberg highlights the existence of a third possible identity, one that transcends and transgresses the division of the border itself.

“Monument”, US flags, polyester, wood, nylon & hardware, 66 X 26 X 26 inches, 2016. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Her practice not only considers the interwoven nature of geographic boundaries, but also the interrelatedness that characterizes gender binaries. In particular, her sculpture practice has, for years, juxtaposed elements of masculinity and femininity in a way that calls attention to the limits of these two categories. For instance, in her work Monument, Vandenberg combines the masculinity associated with militarism and patriotic service with the femininity of textile work. In this work, Vandenberg constructs a portable, stuffed obelisk out of the fabric of several deconstructed flags. As such, the work calls attention to the particularly masculine traits of patriotic duty and military sacrifice, alluding to the cemetery memorials that mark the graves of countless American soldiers. (While women have, for centuries, served in military roles, the vast majority of service members killed in the line of duty have been men, due largely to the exclusion of women from combat roles until 2016.)

At the same time, Vandenberg incorporates clearly feminine signifiers into her monument through her choice of materials. Sewing, and textile work more generally, is unquestionably feminine, having been one of the primary forms of craft practices that have characterized women’s art for centuries. Broadly speaking, within flag culture, women’s roles have historically been as makers, using our talents with needle and thread to construct symbolic objects, the most iconic example of such being the Revolutionary War seamstress Betsy Ross. Therefore, by incorporating this textile tradition and rendering her monument visibly soft—a characteristic often attributed to women both in physical form and in temperament— Vandenberg complicates the masculinity associated with the obelisk and the militaristic culture it represents.

In bringing together two sides of this binary, Vandenberg again demonstrates how these notions are, indeed, interconnected. The softness of the stuffed fabric combined with the rigidity of the form of the obelisk proposes a reconceptualization of gender wherein the dichotomy between manliness and womanhood is replaced with a more nuanced and dialectic understanding. Because this form is neither completely masculine nor completely feminine, it posits the existence of some hybridity between the two, thus illustrating that the binary is false and that some combination thereof is likely more common.

In her practice, Vandenberg has challenged the apparent duality of gender on multiple occasions, including in more recent work like the piece Homewrecker. In this work, Vandenberg has constructed a sewing station precariously propped up on a variety of knives, all of which sit on a flattened deer hide, while a brick placed on the pedal keeps the machine running. Like with her monument, the sewing machine itself is a synecdoche for womanhood.  The metaphorical reference to womanhood is made more apparent through the fact that it is a “homemaker” brand machine, calling to mind one of the central elements of women’s labor and identities for centuries. At the same time, the knives—bowie knives along the base of the machine and throwing knives extending down the legs of the chair—coupled with the skinned deer hide allude to hunting, one of the most traditional and archetypal roles for men going back to hunter/gatherer societies.

And yet even with the clear gender distinctions that are apparent on the surface of the work, the piece highlights the complicated and intertwined nature of gender. For instance, as Vandenberg notes, the deer hide itself can be understood as a feminine form, particularly as deer have held “a lot of symbolism in every religion, […]usually related to purity and fertility.” The masculinity of hunting is therefore undercut by the femininity associated with the deer in various spiritual practices. Through this juxtaposition, Vandenberg continues to complicate binary gender distinctions in her work, highlighting the capacity of objects and individuals to perform both roles simultaneously.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

The gender dichotomy is only one of the multiple binaries challenged in Homewrecker; the piece also ruminates of the duality of ephemerality and permanence. In particular, the physical construction of the work is both temporary and enduring. On the one hand, the assembled items that comprise the sculpture—the sewing machine, the seat, the knives, the hide, and the brick—are all sturdy and long-lasting items. On the other hand, the permanence of these objects is undercut by the dynamic and mechanical nature of the work. By strategically placing a brick on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, Vandenberg has created an object that will continue to vibrate so long as it is on display, ultimately causing the knives to cut into the deer hide and thus destroy the work as it once existed. In creating a work that appears static but is, in fact, always changing, Vandenberg highlights the interrelatedness between the ephemeral and the permanent. That the deer hide appears permanently whole but is actually being altered moment by moment illustrates how things may appear eternal, but they are never quite that. At the same time, that the fleeting and momentary vibrations of the sewing machine are causing the knives to damage the hide instant by instant also illustrates the impact of ephemerality on more permanent conditions.

Throughout her career, Melissa Vandenberg has used her practice to critically examine multifaceted and complex issues, layering meaning into the various elements of each work to create a totality rife with bold statements and nuanced assertions. Despite working in a wide variety of media, there are clearly remarkable through lines that create wholeness out of what could be understood as disunity. Similarly, though her work addresses a considerable number of disparate ideas, the distinctions among them frequently function to unite her practice and the issues she addresses. Her work challenges us to think in more complicated ways, abandoning reductive logic that seeks to delineate the world in binary forms, offering us instead a way to see a possible interconnected third.

Portrait of the artist by the artist, Melissa Vandenberg

[1]Melissa Vandenberg to Middleland: Artwork and commentary focused on the landscape flanking the Mason-Dixon Divide. , February 26, 2010, http://middleland2010.blogspot.com/?view=magazine.


UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our February submission related to this project: UnderMain critic Hunter Kissel visits Kentucky artist Harry Sanchez, Jr. 

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.

Arts

Accomplishing Failure

In her essay, “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag calls into question the stability of the ways in which the likes of history, art, and theory are understood. To interpret something, Sontag argues, is to comprehend it, and she posits that the process of interpretation typically spurs from a network of social myths and beliefs. “Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value,” Sontag states.

Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness.

For many artworks, even those that are born out of experimentation or spontaneity, to be interpreted is to be considered successful in some sense. But how would an artwork behave, look, and exist—and how should it be interpreted—when failure is the predominant driving force in its creation?

Failure in Progress, Zephyr Gallery’s latest exhibition featuring works by five regional artists, expands the conceptualization of failure and all its implications, specifically the presumption that failure is temporary or liminal and rarely a sought out conclusion. The exhibition, curated by Jessica Bennett Kincaid, stands as an opportunity to evaluate what it means for an artwork to succeed or not, and how failure can be utilized as an aspiration or primary component in making a work of art.

Melissa Vandenberg, Conflagrate, 2015, sparkler burn on Arches paper, 22” x 30”. Courtesy Zephyr Gallery and the artist.

Allusions to failure are ubiquitous in Melissa Vandenberg’s Conflagrate (2015), a drawing—or perhaps more accurately, an imprint—of the American flag singed onto a piece of paper by sparklers. Some burns are so severe that holes in the paper have formed, or certain charred areas are so vast that the rigid contours of the flag’s stripes have vanished. Failure is prevalent through the use of materials: the act of burning something is inherently detrimental, and the drawing itself lacks many of the standards common in depictions of the flag such as color, geometric accuracy, and, most noticeable in Vandenberg’s work, stars. This particular rendition of one of America’s most striking emblems is filled with void. Additionally, the combination of iconography and material is charged with political and social connotations. Vandenberg submits a symbol of national unity in a destructive manner to imply that American stability is an illusion maintained by such images. Conflagrate, much like the conceit of Failure in Progress, suggests that deficiency is always present and, in some cases, inescapable.

Josh Azzarella, Untitled #125 (Hickory), 2011, 120:00:00, HD video, 5.1 sound, 1 custom computer, Edition of 3.

Deficiency is further explored in a black box on Zephyr’s upper-level, which projects Josh Azzarella’s Untitled #125 (Hickory) (2011), a video excerpt of the Wizard of Oz beginning when the tornado first enters the film and ending when Glinda the Good Witch greets Dorothy in Munchkinland. In Azzarella’s version, the segment has been extended to last five days, or 120 hours, inevitably blurring the clip due to limitations of technology. In developing the work, Azzarella layered his selection on top of itself multiple times, delaying the start time of each so that every frame is present at any given moment through the duration of the work, some more perceptible than others. The end result is a vague retelling of one of the film’s most pivotal scenes—Azzarella obscures familiar imagery to the point of illegibility.

It is the technological components of Untitled #125 that most pertinently incorporate notions of failure, but the references to failure permeate the content of the piece as well. For some, failure is an intermediary stage on the path to success. Similarly, the clip of Dorothy entering Oz is a fleeting yet crucial shift within the film’s narrative. Azzarella has completely fixated on this point, allowing the transitory moment to run on end, paralleling the thematic persistence of failure throughout the gallery.

Josh Azzarella, Untitled #142 (Bob Coe from Wasco), 2013, 2 HD video channels (4:00, 3:18), Seamless, endless loops, 10.2 surround sound, 2 custom computers, Edition of 3

Like Untitled #125, Azzarella’s Untitled #142 (Bob Coe from Wasco) (2013), a two channel video work playing edited loops from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, centers on the moments surrounding the main action. Both screens in Untitled #142 display two characters from the film facing each other, standing with their backs near the edges of the screens. The characters bustle in place but their feet never move, effectively halting Hitchcock’s plot. Azzarella’s works in Failure in Progress compliment others well, including Vandenberg’s Conflagrate, which shed light on the ways in which fragments of popular culture are capable of holding divergent, conflicting meanings.

Alex Serpentini, Almost Something, 2017, survey responses visible through augmented reality interface, dimensions variable. Courtesy Zephyr Gallery and the artist.

Alex Serpentini, Almost Something, 2017, survey responses visible through augmented reality interface, dimensions variable. Courtesy Zephyr Gallery and the artist.

Collective memory is again at the fore in Almost Something (2017), an interactive virtual work by Alex Serpentini that activates when visitors maneuver an iPad to face various directions in the gallery space. Serpentini creates a program that projects disclosures of personal failures on the walls of Zephyr, depending on where the holder of the iPad chooses to move it. The admissions are frequently striking, and invoke experiences with college courses, romantic pursuits, and rugby teams that reveal insecurities and loss. Discontent is ever-present in Almost Something, which is at once the most aesthetically minimal and arguably the most powerful work in the exhibition due to the straightforward presentation and nature of its subject matter.

Gautam Rao, Everything Happens for a Reason, 2017, aluminum, steel, dimensions variable.

Outside in Zephyr’s courtyard, Gautam Rao’s Everything Happens for a Reason (2017) is amongst the most playful works in the exhibition. Rao offers what seem to be six regulation road signs: the shapes, aluminum, and colors deceptively operate as everyday warnings to stop, merge, or the like. But it quickly becomes apparent that Rao’s diamonds and octagons are instead covered with twisted lines or contradictory arrows that would prove unhelpful for drivers. Everything Happens for a Reason, as its name suggests, simulates the threshold dividing success and failure—these signs represent those endeavors that fall short of routine objectives. What’s more, Rao’s outdoor sculptures test our perception in a manner similar to the artist’s Sorting Cube Revised (2017), a modified version of a children’s learning toy that requires trial and error to complete.

Andrew Cozzens, End Game, 2017, mixed media (wood, electronics, motor, clay, time), dimensions variable.

There are many compelling reasons to view this particular exhibit on numerous occasions, not least of which is Andrew Cozzens’s End Game (2017), a series of six platforms lining the gallery’s widest wall, each holding a ceramic vase. Every platform is connected to a timer that, upon counting down to show all zeroes, triggers a lever, collapsing the platform so the vase plummets to the floor to crash and shatter with disorder. The timers are set in intervals that equally divide the exhibition’s duration into sixths.

Andrew Cozzens, End Game, 2017, mixed media (wood, electronics, motor, clay, time), dimensions variable.

Cozzens, fatally, demonstrates the ways in which interpretation is, in some cases, dependent on the notion of time. As for End Game, failure is both unavoidable and the goal. Success and failure are achieved by the same outcome. Indeed, Failure in Progress, with an exceptional array of artworks that contemplate insufficiency in varied manners, asks visitors to rethink their learned modes of interpretation. Failure is hardly a desirable feat, but the five artists currently showing at Zephyr have discovered methods of pursuing, facing, and adapting to setbacks with success.

Failure in Progress is on view at Zephyr Gallery in Louisville, KY until December 30th 2017.

Arts

LAL Gala: The Arts in ‘Call and Response’

“Well whether we’re fancy or not we’ll be dressed fancy,” said Kentucky-based interdisciplinary artist Melissa Vandenberg as she prepared new pieces for the Lexington Art League’s Art Gala, an annual formal fundraiser.

Guests to the Saturday Art Gala can expect to see the historic Loudoun House transformed into a fully interactive symbiosis of art forms, incorporating video installations, soft sculpture and musical compositions by regional, national and international artists. International artist collective Expanded Draught and Vandenberg—both familiar faces at LAL—will be exhibiting fresh work while 21c Museum Hotel artists will be making their debut into the Lexington art community at this event.

These media will converge to create a fully experimental call and response between the individual art forms, ultimately building an augmented environment in which guests are encouraged to actively experience the art instead of simply looking at it on a wall.

The floor of Vandenberg’s studio in Richmond, where she serves as assistant professor of art at EKU, is obscured by an intricate weave of tobacco cloth, while piles of shredded paper sprout from the floors and tables like stalagmites. Pieces from Victory Without Fanfare, a culminating exhibition after Vandenberg’s summer 2014 residency at LAL, hang proudly on the walls.

Vandenberg is preparing a series of soft sculptures that incorporate iconography that have become motifs in her work, but with a new twist. Instead of neatly sewn and precisely quilted artwork, she is experimenting with super slouchy, under-stuffed forms. Vandenberg is purposefully using materials that are not precious, in hopes that the sculptures may ‘self destruct’ as guests and gallery-goers engage with them. Many of these pieces can be picked up, worn, and even thrown across the room. Placed strategically with video installations by 21c Museum Hotel artists Robert Pettena, Robin Rhode and Miguel Angel Rios, these sculptures are part of a conversation meant to evoke emotion in viewers that will move them to leave their mark on the gallery space.

“Working with white and transparent materials was something proposed by LAL,” Vandenberg said. She said the only stipulation given was to things ample but light, so as not to upstage or distract from the other pieces. There is a definite factor of unpredictability when you put three different types of artists in a show together and say, “go,” but this is the type of creative experimentation LAL knows all too well.

The opportunity for artists from different places and backgrounds to converge to form one cohesive body of work is rare. LAL as a major staple in the rising art community of Lexington is something worth promoting and celebrating in our community, and Art Gala allows guests to do just that.

“LAL is not only dedicated to promoting and serving the arts in the community,” Vandenberg said, “they are also dedicated to serving the artists in the community.”

“The Art Gala will be an unforgettable celebration of contemporary art from Lexington and beyond,” LAL Executive Director Stephanie Harris said.

Kicking and throwing sculptures around a gallery is probably not what comes to mind when one thinks of formal fundraisers, but the Lexington Art League’s upcoming Art Gala is certainly not your typical fundraiser.

The Art Gala will take place Saturday, January 17, 2015 from 7pm-11pm at the Loudoun House. Tickets on sale now here.