It all started years ago when, as a girl in Thailand, the tropical heat required that she cut her much-prized, long blond hair. Years later, her mother presented her with two braids that she had secretly saved all that time. Then, to protect them, Krista Van Ness made a long glass box to keep them in.
Still in their box, the braids are kept in Van Ness’s living room with countless current assemblages, also in glass boxes that sit or hang. From all of them, she selected those to take to the Peddie School in Hightstown, where her solo show opens Friday, January 16, in the school’s Mariboe Gallery.
Gallery curator Cathy Robohm Watkins describes how "Van Ness’s mixed-media assemblages explore the possibilities of illusion by placing common objects in exaggerated and provocative situations which suggest alternative associations." In other words, A boxed white egg that seems to have sprouted hairs through
the holes that puncture it; bird feet sticking out the top of a white, snowy-looking glitter mountain in a square glass box; mummified mice, some riding dried seahorses, in a shallow hanging box ("I loved their little bones, their gestures," the artist says of the mice, all contributions from her two cats); a large glass box, at least a foot around, containing a mix of white eggs and brownish bones, many from deer. ("Birth and death, calcium in common…" murmurs Van Ness, apparently not feeling a need to explain.)
Schooled in painting and drawing, Van Ness really began her assemblages with the braid-box. She realizes that valued objects are made extra-special by being boxed, and she prefers glass to plexiglass because it’s clear, strong-yet-fragile, and holds its transparency. "It’s about containment, protection," she says.
That awareness, coupled with her love of nature up close, has resulted in, for example a shallow box housing mounted cicadas — insects she finds both interesting and pretty. Their body is surprisingly patterned, suggesting turtle shells; their translucent wings are finely webby; they’re overall glossy. ("I spruced them up with a little Pledge on a Q-tip," she says.) Van Ness says she’s very good at spotting dead cicadas at the end of their brief lives: they have distinguishing white bellies.
Invariably, she carries plastic bags for collecting cicadas, bones, shells, road-kill and dead animals (such as rabbit parts), even twigs and branches — which may go into her assemblages, infusing a new (and surely different) life into them in the process. "I don’t see them as dead, but as objects," she says.
Van Ness’s kitchen-studio includes a wall of clear plastic containers where she stores, and preserves in Borax, her materials for future work: seashells, bones, animal teeth, eggs and "seven rabbit ears,"according to one label. During five years at the New Jersey State Museum, she saw "a lot of objects under glass" and was struck by how that made them special and caused visitors to look at them. So: A series of "mummy birds," wrapped in delicate ecru ribbon ("instead of tearing linen — it was the right width"), lined up inside a horizontal box; her own hair, sewn into a grid design on paper in a wall piece;
a plaster relief cast from her own face, partly covered with ladybugs; "The Listening Receiver": a vertical black box, with faux microphone and speaker openings outside, and a raised rabbit ear atop a small pedestal inside.
Granted, Van Ness’s assemblage art is unusual, maybe even outre, but it’s neither grotesque nor macabre, especially when seen in concert with Van Ness’s own views of it. "Art that’s influenced by the more conceptual movements requires more art history background to help in viewing the work," she notes. And she agrees, with pleasure, that her work is the antithesis of the sensuous, decorative, and colorful art of Matisse.
She treats her once-living subjects with respect, and her finished assemblages are cleanly, crisply professional. Some constitute their own tongue-in-cheek statements, as with a bird upended in "snow," which she compares to a New Yorker magazine cartoon. Some pieces are magical, some hark back to fairy tales or childhood experiences, or a mix of all these elements. For example: Two mounted rabbit heads, whose mouths drip lustrous pearls into pyramidal piles at the bottom of their glass box; the wall-piece called "Cat Whisker Tote" displays
a row of formidable white cat whiskers on textured black fabric complete with frog fastenings — a design based on her grandmother’s quilted tote for storing silk stockings; "Wet Rabbit" (with wings), that appears to be
swimming in a rock-surrounded blue pool, with only its head and one paw (and
those seemingly-incongruous wings) showing.
A slender, somewhat ascetic-looking woman, with cheekbones that contribute to the look, Van Ness has long, light hair and apparently eschews bright colors and accessories. Her muted, appearance is congruent with her earth-toned works and her reserved, even guarded, manner — maybe in place only until she senses a visitor isn’t going to attack her work or impugn her motives, as happened at a recent exhibition.
She seems to like explaining how she achieves the effects in her assemblages; she enjoys the challenge of figuring out mechanics and materials. She has found young people and non-artists the most open-minded viewers of her work. While other artists have said the equivalent of "Yuck! dead birds!" or "Ugh! a rabbit head!", children typically decide it’s "cool," or interesting.
A Douglass College fine arts graduate, Van Ness studied illustration at Parsons before deciding against commercial art and living in New York, and returned to the Hopewell Valley area, where she grew up and where she can enjoy nature and make the kind of art she chooses. Her work now falls into two categories — assemblages she calls "very illustrative" (also in boxes) and the
"minimalist" assemblages she’ll show at Peddie.
Although she expects to get back to drawing and painting, right now she is more frequently asked to show her assemblages. She has even dabbled — much to her own dissatisfaction — in taxidermy. Her few efforts with squirrels, which she keeps around as reminders, proved less easy and less successful than she had hoped.
Van Ness has had solo exhibitions at Mercer County Community College and Mill Hill Playhouse. Her work has appeared in numerous juried group shows, including the recent, "Tough Art," at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton. Other juried venues include City Without Walls in Newark; Fleisher Art Memorial of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Ellarslie, Trenton; Princeton University; and New York City galleries. "For me to have a show or have someone else enjoy my work or even be interested in my work is an honor, a complete honor," says Van Ness. "It’s not something I expect."
Krista Van Ness, Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Opening reception for a show of mixed-media assemblages by the Pennington artist. Show continues to February 27. Free. Friday, January 16, 7 to 9 p.m.