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.