This week I have delved into a very particular part of my past, that I don't often spend much time thinking about. You see, one of the reasons I've never much cared for the city plan-less, SpinArt of suburban sprawl that is Northern Virginia, is that I lived here for two years. As a George Mason student, I drove all over these parts looking for something to do, eating mac and cheese that I made on a hot plate (flavor saver!), binge watching TV shows from the internet (trail blazer!), and pining (love craver!) for my long distance girlfriend.
Today I drove through an almost unrecognizable campus, since I had to go to the art store near the college for some supplies (I'm setting up a little satellite studio in my Mom's house so I can get back to cracking the paper whip!), and I couldn't stop the flood of old away-from-home-for-the-first-time emotions flowing through me.
But walking down the aisles of Plaza Art made me think about the first time I ever went there. 19, focused intently on being cool, so therefore always intimidated, with a list of supplies in my hand I needed for class. The girls (at least as I remember it there were mostly girls) who worked there, wore the blank clothes of true artist types, and when they would ask I would never let them help me because then they would find out I didn't know anything about art supplies or making art and that I was not a serious or attractive or worthwhile (because I thought IT was something you either were or you weren't, artist, genius, lover, insert your abstract concept here).
Living in the headspace of my George Mason years, I remembered that this time and place is really where my desire to make things, blossomed. On top of having the kind of unintimidating art classes that art majors had already placed out of, the department had a great requirement, that every student was required to take a field trip to either New York or DC to go to a top tier museum. It was a requirement to do something I already loved and get out into cities which felt real in a way that my college did not. I sometimes went two or three times a semester.
It was on one such field trip into DC that I decided to venture away from my favorite parts of the National Gallery and Portrait Museum and go to the giant slideshow projector that is the Hirschhorn (a museum I still highly recommend if you've never been). And it was a welcome shock. On top of being just, really just a strange sight to behold, (from some angles elegant, from others, a stucco futurist donut) they had a very different sort of art than I was used to seeing. They had videos playing while you went up the escalators, there were windows continuous along the inside, and up on the top floor, I found something truly special. Contemporary art.
It shouldn't sound so shocking, but for me there had ever only been two types of art. There was the kind of stuff that I saw at first fridays in Richmond, where working artists and VCU students showed their work that varied from bizzare and theoretical to really well crafted and well toned paintings and sculptures. This was type one, the things that people (perhaps rich) would buy to show in their foyers. Type two was the masters, it encompassed all the illuminating and brilliant history of art since Lascaux. And this is what always made museums so amazing to me.
Now here I was looking at art that was completed in the 2000's, and here was the real kicker, I could tell it wasn't made by old men! First off, because a lot of the artists were women, but secondly it didn't take a genius to see the color the texture, the playfulness of all these installations. I felt like I was in a Discovery Zone or something. I wish I had known exactly how important that museum visit would be to me, so I could have written down all the artists I saw that day, but despite the lost photos and journals that would recast the spell, there was one set of works that called me towards it like a tractor beam. That I fell into. It was a vortex of paper seeming to be sucked into the wall. It looked to be made of every color in the world being pulled from thin air and in the vey center, as if light years away, a glimmering light bled through. I was completely transfixed by it.
As I looked around I saw more and more of her pieces, some reaching out like flower petals, other sarlac pits, all involved in the most mysterious motions, the softest geometric patters, the quietest bursts of color. It was topographical maps and wormholes and microscope slides and fractals and winAmp visualizers. It was a language I never knew I knew.
It did not seem like something you would buy to hang over your couch, and it did not seem canonical fodder. I was blown away by what someone could do with such simple and non-traditional materials. How you could make movement possible from a two dimensional medium. How color seeping from a flat black or white surface could look somehow cartoonish and organic could speak to the bright goop of nostalgia that stirs still within people these days. To stir our play doh blood.
On top of these perfectly executed, breathing cut pieces, she also makes large hanging sculptures, experiments with reflective surfaces, elements of kaleidoscopes, trompe d'oielle, mural painting, animation. She's a tireless explorer of not just lisa frank lightness and color and play, but what it means to fold these bits of pure shape and color into the confines of art, work, commerce and design. And to think, all this she's accomplished, and when I saw her work, when I was 19, she was only 23.
Since that day, Jen Stark's art has never left my mind. I follow her to this day, on instagram, in press, in spirit quests! She showed me a lightness that wasn't separate from thoughtful, beautiful execution. And those are the exact qualities I most look towards when I make.
My very first original, ambitious paper piece was inspired by this visit. It was a gift to a good friend on her birthday. The Austin city skyline with a looming multicolored sinking triangle floating above (the silver triangle at the center being 10 layers back from sky). It was to represent all that Austin would have to offer us, all the energy, the mystery, the opportunity and growth we would have, together and separately. And when I made it, though it was only an impersonation, I felt powerful. Felt, perhaps for the first time, that I could make things that were daring, beautiful, and bold. After this piece, I felt that maybe there was something to this making art thing after all.
And so on this grey and green Tuesday in Northern Virginia I offer up my thanks to my first paper prophet, Jen Stark.
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