Even in our wireless world, we are inundated with plastic-bound cords that connect us to whatever it is that we think we need. Our outlets exude electrical cables charging phones, tablets, laptops, robots. We have surge protectors that accommodate even more wires snaking around our desks, our kitchens, even our bedrooms. Popup ads attempt to sell us containment systems to organize the unwieldy strands of our lives.
In “Distraction,” on view at Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery through November 15, Eva Mantell has knotted, braided, crocheted, and woven the electrical cords, creating forms that take on new meaning.
With these forms, Mantell questions connectivity and communication, inviting speculation about the ways technology is transforming the space between us. “There are so many dazzling and warp-speed ways to communicate that seem to collapse the space between us,” says Mantell in a statement. “Maybe I want to uncollapse that space. I want to give form to what’s left unsaid.”
Since the emancipation of her two adult children — Miranda is at Syracuse University studying English and Samuel hasn’t yet declared a major at Washington and Lee — Mantell has turned her whole house (she shares it with two SAVE rescue dogs, Sasha and Lulu) and yard into an art studio. There are industrial lights, and the living room walls are covered with white corkboard from which she can hang and view large works in progress.
It’s a busy time for the artist. In addition to the show at PDS, Pennswood Art Gallery in Newtown, Pennsylvania, is exhibiting her work through November 11, and her newest work, “WRECKstasy,” will be on view at the Soho20 Gallery in Brooklyn from November 16 through December 21.
The wire sculpture on view in “Distraction” is a bridge between the other two shows. At Pennswood Mantell is exhibiting her sculpture made from upcycled paper cups, and in “WRECKstasy” she will be showing the most recent work that begins with upcycled pages torn from magazines. (Another series she is working on, not yet ready for prime time, is made from straws connected in intricate patterns, using wires and twist ties.) What all these media have in common are the networks created from them.
The series are as interconnected as are the lines and form in each. The paper cup series, mostly completed in the aughts, focused on a single material “to see what I could do within a frame, using a simple material and pushing it so a viewer would look at it in a different way and spend more time with an object that otherwise has a short shelf life. The cups have been changed in simple ways but begin to look complicated.”
All three series are about creating networks from recycled materials.
After completing the paper cup series, Mantell was casting about for a new material that would be similarly available, something from life hiding in plain sight that she could take into a new arena, and there it was — an old guitar amp cord and an obsolete computer cable wound their way into her consciousness. Her very first in the series, titled “Nerves,” is a delicate braided headset. Another is an eccentric woven grid, exemplifying the balance between being ordered versus chaotic.
Mantell is quick to point out that she is not a crafty person; she had never before knit or crocheted. She figures out the stitches as she goes along, starting with a loop or a knot and keeping that direction as it builds structure. “The Self-Made Tapestry” by Philip Bale, a compendium of ways nature builds structure using simple repeated elements, is her bedside reading. And though she has never sailed, she says she could probably teach a sailor a knot or two. “A knot is such a basic language; it’s a system of common understanding.
“Knots have been with us since ancient times. It relates to drawing. The lines are so basic. You can give everyone a line and they would do it differently. Our response to the line is so personal and specific,” says Mantell, who teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton, West Windsor Arts Council, Rutgers’ Douglass College, and other venues.
“Nerves” is building a larger conversation, she says. “I’m making a case for how specific our expression is and how important it is to consider each other’s expression.”
Found color is a theme in “Nerves.” Some are yellow (in order to be highly visible on construction sites), others are Home Depot orange, and at press time she was on the lookout for pink wire. But mostly the cords are upcycled and would otherwise have found their way to the landfill.
Some patterns are further embellished with cable ties that create a new pattern. There are black and red woven mats, and a basket weave of disposable cords comes together in an organic form. “It’s a protest against entropy,” she says, “a denial of what they are. ‘Take a stand!’”
At PDS the cords — which are still functional — will be exhibited suspended in space, connected to each other and to a power source. Mantell, PDS Class of 1981, will work with students who bring obsolete wires to incorporate into their own projects. “We’re leaving this all to them,” she says of electronic waste.
“WRECKstasy” is a series of paintings on the idea of the breaking down and collapse of the possibility of future regrowth, she says. Working outdoors, she layers magazine fragments onto large rolls of canvas, adhering them with acrylic paint, and then allows nature to play its part. Rain creates effects on the paint and the paper, as do the leaves that fall upon it, imparting an impression. She welcomes these forces into the painting and acknowledges she has no control. The result is a tapestry of color, light, texture, and form.
“When you’re making a painting you’re looking into art history and every other painting ever made,” she says.
There can be anywhere from five to ten layers and the finished piece can take months to come into being. “I’m happy to have found something I can go back into — it’s a conversation between fun and struggle, and being left open to what nature does to them, changing them in unpredictable ways.”
The paintings evoke nature, and yet the colors are beyond nature, with purples and celadons, and their relationship to each other. Crackles form with the building of layers and the taking away and eroding. “My hope is that the process of the making is the topic of the piece and the story of how it is made will be of interest to the viewer. With so much destruction, you get into the beauty — is there hope in destruction?”
The story of how they are made begins with large buckets of paint poured on canvas, spread by brushes and by hand. “It’s a free-for-all,” says the artist, who dons rubber gloves and boots for the process. “Each layer is like a move in a game and it hides what’s below.”
The embedded pieces of magazine — once the original source of information and understanding the world — eventually fall away, leaving ghosts. A good soaking rain will pool and strip the paint.
She describes the process of painting, with its gestures, as highly emotional. “These big paintings are about grief for my husband,” Mantell says. “There isn’t a painting big enough to talk about that kind of emotion.” Merrell Noden died in 2015, at the age of 59, after a battle with cancer. Mantell had been married to the Princeton University alumnus, athlete, and writer for Sports Illustrated for 31 years; they raised their children together.
Born in Princeton, Mantell continues to make it her home. Her mother, Marianne Mantell, who still lives in the area, founded Caedmon Records, a business that recorded poets and authors, such as Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and others, reading their own works — Caedmon was a pioneer in the audio book industry. She later worked for Mantell’s father, Harold, a documentary filmmaker.
“They loved to have art around the house,” Mantell recalls. “I developed a lot of curiosity about the world from them.”
With a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in fine art from the School of Visual Arts in New York, Mantell has exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, ICA Boston, Hunterdon Museum, Jersey City Museum, Monmouth Museum, Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery, and through various dance theater workshops and festivals throughout the world.
In the classes she teaches the focus is on creative play and improvisation —caregivers and people with disabilities, memory loss, and those facing homelessness are welcome, and there are no boundaries. “I teach the way I make art, introducing ideas of taking simple things and seeing what they can do with them. We work with elements from magazines and collage and paint.”
And the show at Soho20 will include a case with two robots holding pens and paint brushes to make drawings — what she describes as a companion piece to the very emotional paintings. “Technology is a force that is unpredictable and causes great change. I’ve accepted it wholly into my life. It tells me when I’m 11 minutes from home. But it’s a great change in our lives politically, personally, and environmentally. I admit that it’s in my pores, my cells, and that privacy is over, as is the idea of limiting technology. It’s woven into us.
“I don’t know my role in these changes and want to explore it,” Mantell continues. “Are we creative anymore? What is the meaning of our expression?”
Distraction, Princeton Day School, 650 Great Road, Princeton. Opening public reception Friday, October 26, 5 to 7 p.m.,with artist’s talk at 6 p.m. On view through Wednesday, November 14, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The two-person show also features mixed media-photography fusion artist Nick Beatty. Free. firstname.lastname@example.org.