Past, Present and Future

Catalog essay for Future Imperfect: On Entering the New Century, Sharidan Art Gallery, Kutztown University. February 6 – March 11, 2001
By: Robin Rice

Though their work is distinctive, Ruth Borgenicht and Michelle Oosterbaan share a feeling for materials and a feeling for material culture. Both are unusually grounded in the present: what it feels like, what it looks like, sounds like, how it shapes itself around us — and, equally, what shaped it. They work with the past in its larger role as history, as well as its experiential immediacy, and allow it to expand our understanding of the ever-changing present.

Ruth Borgenicht

In his recent “Farewell Address to the Nation,” out-going President Clinton cautioned in unconscious rhyme, “ . . . the world is more connected every day in every way . . .”(1.) Technology and human curiosity accelerate the impetus toward trans-cultural art, but how will it work? Can great poetry be written in Esperanto? Not likely! How do artists communicate effectively and authentically in today’s world?

As a child Ruth Borgenicht moved with her family every six months between Israel and New Jersey. This experience certainly contributes to the unusual flexibility and complexity of her vision and enables her to speak meaningfully as both insider and outsider. Borgenicht herself believes that her need to make forms based on familiar objects arises from a “floating” sense of dislocation, and “subconscious associations, [which] though not always logical, often represent my fears and longing for a stable environment.”

As electronic communication draws our human community into increasing intimacy, one vocabulary which consistently transcends cultural barriers paradoxically originates in the low-end of technology: craft. The Victorians have been ridiculed for over-valuing the time spent in making an object; nevertheless, while ‘good taste’ has fallen from fashion (except for the cat in Fancy Feast commercials), great crafting remains relatively easy to recognize. It crosses boundaries of class, national identity and literal language and in Bogenicht’s art it embodies comprehensible meaning.

Although Borgenicht is amused that people sometimes mistakenly link (my pun) her sculptures based on chain mail to bondage or sadomasochism, she certainly imposes an almost ritualistic painstaking discipline on herself to craft these objects of sensuous allure. She casts the clay rings in plaster molds taken from actual objects. The rings are removed while still flexible, cut open and linked to other rings. Building a fabric of links requires a separate firing for each new row of rings because the weight of the unfired ones would shatter green clay. When an entire work is bisqued, Borgenicht fires it to stoneware.

The resulting velvety surfaces of perfectly proportioned modular units, sometimes of different colored clay are delightful in their refinement and clearly not objects which could be mass-produced. They invite touch and make satisfying sounds when moved. They are mobile and yet attached, part of a whole. Nevertheless the perfection of these works is undermined by their fragility, a fragility which tempts — almost invites — destruction for they are made of an “inappropriate” and amusingly contradictory material.

The chain mail in the Metropolitan Museum’s armor collection which inspired the form of these works was designed to defend, to protect a moving, aggressive target. Borgenicht’s clay mail sculpture suggests that defense is always provisional, transitory — even hopeful. The aspect of concealment which is central to several works is enhanced by the maze-like complexity of the linked patterns. On the other hand, the flexible Centipedes and other ring forms, as well as the sheets of mail, make a statement of utopian interrelatedness. It may be fragile — even a little absurd in its intention to protect and to remain whole; but Borgenicht makes it a beautiful, a very nearly perfect reality.

Michelle Oosterbaan

In Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light, Leonard Shlain (2.) explores links between art and science. Michelle Oosterbaan is unusual but not alone in her appropriation of scientific and industry-based signage to approximate personal ideas. (3.) Could work like hers hint at a new rapprochement between art and science, a rift in the fabric of thought since science perhaps foolishly severed its ancient connection with the arts? (4.) Could the fragmentation, which permeates our culture of science, entertainment, and art give way to a new more generous synthesis? Perhaps Oysterman’s pictorial mapping anticipates a more integrated vision for both science and art.

Oosterbaan’s diagrammatic installations approach autobiographical narrative in a visual language which synthesizes elements of mapping, architectural notation, and modernist design. “[My work] condenses everything and encompasses all the variables that are possible — the opportunities for things to disperse, evolve, and all arrive at the same place. Very complex things seem very easy to understand in this visual language,” she says.

Place has played a significant role in Oosterbaan’s life. Her family moved so frequently that she had lived in seven places before the third grade. Recollections of spatial and temporal relationships are obliquely recaptured in the layers and intricate meandering patterning of her architecturally-related work. She renders bricks so “you can understand density,” draws on glass, and layers sheets of rice paper to encompass the range of spatial possibilities. Potent colors have a post-industrial, modernist feel. Though Oosterbaan often utilizes manufactured signs, particularly the solid presence of colored tape, and conventionalized elements of notation, the presence of the human hand and a unique human vision are always evident. “[The installation] mirrors my experience. It feels formal and very personal.”

Just as memory suffuses our present experience, walls are dissolved by large but delicate overlays of maps and diagrams which may include geological or biological references. The paradoxical superimposition of transitory remembered and imagined space upon real, relatively permanent space is about “having things be moveable and the constant compulsion to rearrange. I find satisfaction in the freedom of the temporary,” Oosterbaan says. She sees her work as a dialogue between a “new place” (the gallery, for example) and what she brings to it: line, color, pattern and space and memory.

The future will be perfect with imperfections which we might optimistically describe as variations on perfection. Perfection may be definitively complete — or infinite — but it is always subjective: experiential. When we try to grasp it, name it, date it, experience slips away. Nevertheless, as human beings, we record our journeys — from perfection to perfection or perhaps elsewhere.

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1. Jan 18, 2001.

2. Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light. (New York: William Morris & Co., 1991).

3. They include Los Angeles artists Miriam Dym, Shirley Tse, and Jason Rogenes, all recently seen in Post Millennial Fizzy (Addressing the Possibility of the Future) at Beaver College Art Gallery. The curators, Julie Joyce and Adam Ross, suggest that these artists and others in that show critique the meaningless entertainment dominating contemporary society, which may be true but is not my point.

4. For more on this see: Barbara Stafford, Artful Science: Enlightenment, Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994).