With Whom We Walk This Earth
Esther Klein Gallery
September 17- December 28 2020
Written by: Angela McQuillan Science Center
In March of 2020, artist Dena Haden was preparing to pack up her work in Berkley, Massachusetts and travel to Philadelphia for the opening of her solo exhibition at the Esther Klein Gallery (EKG), scheduled to open in April. As with most things scheduled for March, things didn’t quite turn out as planned. Haden’s show was put on hold indefinitely due to the outbreak of COVID-19. For the first time since the gallery opened in 1976, the walls were barren of art influenced by science – all as scientists and researchers across the country double down on a new virus that would change the course of history.
EKG remained closed for seven months until finally reopening last month for the premiere of With Whom We Walk This Earth, Haden’s new body of work created during her residency at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee.
Viewing artwork in-person in the middle of a pandemic is, for the most part, a solitary experience. Visitors to the gallery are not greeted by large crowds, but instead a quiet and peaceful space offering a more contemplative experience. This is generally my favorite way to look at art — free from outside distractions — and Haden’s work lends itself particularly well to this format.
With Whom We Walk This Earth is a stunningly beautiful collection of fiber-based work created from upcycled objects found in nature. This earth-focused, sustainable art practice emphasizes our human connection to the natural world and re-envisions what this relationship has the potential to become. While Haden had no way to knowing it when the works were created [when was her residency?], the subject seems particularly apropos given so many people’s renewed interest in experiencing the natural world – one of few activities unaltered by the pandemic.
Using materials such as orchids, devil’s claw, trumpet seeds, Japanese knotweed, alpaca fiber and even kombucha culture, Haden literally and figuratively weaves a narrative of innovation and environmental awareness. She fabricates with meticulous handmade detail, giving an extreme amount of time and care to each piece. She views this process of creation as a meditation and an appreciation of the “rawness and beauty of existence.”
Dispersed among the sculptures in the show, viewers will find small drawings made from pigments on paper, depicting human hands that are reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings. This association takes me back to a simpler time, when humans existed in harmony with nature and embodied the true meaning of sustainability. Haden’s utilization of hand weaving techniques act as an homage to cottage industries of past eras, when fibers were hand spun and processed to make essential goods like nets and textiles.
Not only does Haden’s work give a nod to techniques of the past, With Whom We Walk This Earth also looks ahead to the future of sustainable materials. Kombucha is widely known as a healthy beverage, but the bacteria and yeast culture can also produce films of cellulose that when dried, create a leather-like material that has been proposed as a sustainable alternative to textiles. Processed kombucha film can be cut and sewn like any fabric and is 100% biodegradable. Haden utilizes this process of growing, drying, cutting and sewing kombucha to create sculptural elements that resemble tiny vessels that decorate her larger works. The most striking aspect of this material is its slightly translucent appearance, which catches the light in such a way that makes it appear to be glowing. Dyed with natural pigments in shades of amber, gold and burgundy, the luminescent vessels represent the cycle of life in all of its glory.
Just as periods of uncertainty inspired our ancestors to look towards simpler ways of life, COVID-19 has left many of us enhancing our daily experience with rustic, homespun habits such as baking, gardening, and nature walks. The natural world has the unique ability to put life’s stresses into perspective and offer a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. The life cycle of growth and decay tells us that at some point, this deadly virus too shall pass. Once the threat of the pandemic has subsided, these drastic changes to our lifestyle may live on, as well as a renewed sense of what brings “real” happiness. This back-to-nature impulse is imperative now, as well as in the future to address the issue of climate change — a catastrophe that looms on the horizon.
Dena Haden’s exhibit, like all EKG exhibits, is grounded in science and is one of the many ways that the Science Center reaches many diverse audiences. Our goal is to make scientific information and dialogue readily accessible and inclusive for everyone. Whether through art, research or dialog, we believe it’s imperative to stay informed and up to date on accurate, scientific information.
With Whom We Walk This Earth
September 17th - November 28th
Physical Esther Klein Gallery Hours:
Free of Charge - Admission By Appointment (to make an appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Face Masks and Temperature Checks Required
Only 5 Visitors at One Time
Virtual Gallery Hours:
Thursdays 3:00 — 7:00 p.m.
Dena Haden, Recollections
Colo Colo Gallery
February 17 - March 8, 2016
written by: Andy Anello
The artworks in Dena Haden's recent exhibition at Colo Colo Gallery feel like they were once alive, or are the remnants of something that still is. Arranged in pairs or triplets on shin-height wood and cinder block supports, the small-scale sculptures simultaneously feel like they were plucked from nature, and also carefully crafted in a studio. That tension between natural occurrence and obsessive making runs throughout the show.
The materials that Haden works with include wax, wood, metal, cheese cloth, and, most unusually, kombucha culture. The latter ingredient is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, which yields a flat sheet, used to make a tea of the same name.
Haden uses the kombucha, which grows in sheets in her studio over the course of months, to make small cup-like shapes that populate many of the arrangements at Colo Colo. These cups share the same natural-feeling color scheme that is found throughout the show; ranging from pale cream to deep amber. They are delicate, skin-like, and vary in size and shape, while still repeating the same form. They remind one of cicada skins or fruit casings, collected from the ground on nature walks. In fact, the bacteria that forms the kombucha material was once alive, and this liveliness is felt throughout the exhibition.
The potential meanings of the cup shapes shift, however, as they are re-contextualized in each arrangement. In one of the only vertical pieces, which consists of a flat piece of paper mounted on a free-standing wood frame, the cup-shapes are stuck to the paper in a loose grid pattern using metal sewing pins. The use of the pre-fabricated metal pins, and the presentational character of the frame, contribute to the impression of a butterfly case, or an arrangement of fauna specimens on display at a natural history museum. These references reinforce the themes in the show of nature, collection, and careful observation.
Unlike this solo frame, most of the sculptures are grouped in twos and threes and are low to the ground, forcing the viewer to lean over to examine them. Thus, the viewer is coaxed into slowing down and engaging more intimately with the work. The isolated, small arrangements also prevent the consumption of the show in one gulp. Instead, one is granted a gradual accrual of ideas built up over many moments of careful attention.
The array of unique constructions on display read as different tangents of expression. One of my favorites consists of wax that has been pressed through rough holes in a rusted metal plate. On another stand rests a crosscut tree branch with a wedge removed from it, and a grouping of barnacles or fungus-like shapes attached to its surface. And alongside these various worn and rounded sculptural objects are the same empty cups, sometimes sitting loose and upright, other times inverted and set in a slab of wax, or piled on a piece of paper and trailing loose threads used in their construction. In all these works, there is an exciting ambiguity at play as to whether the cups have been emptied–having perhaps hatched an animal or sprouted a plant–or are waiting to be filled, like crude vessels to hold food or drink. In either case, the work feels like evidence of a sustained, methodical practice (the repeated cups), punctuated by bursts of new thought and discovery (the singular creations, that the cups are either embedded in, or sit alongside).
The cups point towards an artistic practice that is process oriented and materially focused. One can imagine a daily routine of preparing the kombucha and crafting cup after cup. And while there is an interesting set of meanings embedded in this practice in and of itself, these meanings are magnified by their proximity to sculptural flights of fancy and inspiration, where new materials are introduced, and different, sometimes singular processes unfold. The cumulative effect speaks strongly to the passage of time, and the cyclical process of accrual and emptying, both as it occurs in nature, and in the artist's studio.