To see high-quality artwork that challenges our perceptions and forces us to think outside narrow parameters, we often have to travel by train to the city, battle the crowds, pay steep admission fees, and, finally, experience a gallery that may evoke nature and humankind’s assault on nature in our contemporary world.
The artists of central New Jersey-based MOVIS, while presenting the usual challenges to perception, also like to challenge the very spaces in which we traditionally view artwork. Since forming in 2006, they have challenged gravity with “In Suspension” at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, and white gallery walls in “Nibbling the White Cube” at the Gallery at Princeton Day School. They continued the theme with “Reinventing the Wheel” at the Arts Council of Princeton, “Inside the Box” at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery, and “HAM and Eggs” at the Hunterdon Art Museum (HAM being the museum’s acronym). They have made “Noise at the Noyes,” thrown a “Boomerang” at the New Jersey State Museum, and even challenged the idea of the line in “Maverick Parallels” at Artworks Trenton.
This summer they are taking the challenge outside with “MOVIS: Into the Woods,” on view at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association Reserve through August 31. Not only is it a chance to see the artwork, but to get out on the Watershed’s trails, with boardwalks making it accessible.
“Installing a group of artworks in the woods is nothing like putting up an art show in a traditional gallery,” says artist Susan Hockaday, whose “Invasive Vine,” made from orange plastic fencing material strung through the trees, reminds us that the most invasive tangle comes not from the plant world but from humankind. “Orange construction fence can be seen everywhere across the land,” she writes in an artist statement. “Here, as an invasive vine in the woods, it reminds us of the toxic presence of plastic in our world.”
“MOVIS has had many exhibits in galleries,” continues Hockaday, who first proposed the idea to Watershed Executive Director Jim Waltman. “This gallery is alive. Everything in it is moving and changing. The elements of this gallery are the earth itself, all the different kinds of plants, water, and rocks, all the various creatures, time passing, and all kinds of weather. These phenomena come together in billions of networks and combinations.”
The presence of works of art in such a setting provokes many questions. How does each artwork connect to its surroundings? Is it disruptive, does it blend in, or does it continue some aspect of the setting? How is it affected by what is around it? What does this relationship tell us? What is the intention of the artist?
Hockaday hopes visitors will discover a relationship between the artworks and their environment and “come away with a fresh sense of the intricacy, beauty, and power of the natural world.”
“’Into the Woods’ adds a creative dimension to our Watershed Reserve,” says Waltman. “Our trails and natural environment make an ideal setting for outdoor art that uses earth, rocks, and natural elements. The Watershed encourages appreciation for the environment, and this outdoor art expresses that wonderfully.”
Composer/musician/sound artist Rita Asch is the only MOVIS artist to have work exhibited indoors, in the two-year-old LEED-certified Watershed Center. Visitors don headphones to listen to “It’s Raining,” a fusion of analog and digital sound. The piece was originally conceived for Theremin, rainstick, and marimba, with the subsequent addition of the steel drum, says Asch. The Theremin is played and recorded by well known regionally based Thereminist Kip Rosser, and combines with the synthesized sounds of the marimba, steel drum, and the recorded sound of rainsticks. There’s even an umbrella nearby, should the auditory effect make you feel raindrops on your skin.
“The piece evolved in stages,” says Asch. “After learning the Theremin part from a written score along with an mp3 file, which included the marimba and the sound of a whistle substituting for the Theremin voice, Kip recorded the Theremin track in his sound studio. At this point, using the recorded Theremin and marimba lines, I added the steel drum to the mix. The rainsticks had been recorded on another track and with the help of my sound engineer, Frank Magalhaes, bits and pieces were lengthened, pitches dropped, and moved to appropriate places in the music.”
Magalhaes, who is not only Asch’s sound engineer but fellow MOVIS artist and life partner, has created “Pipe Drum” from PVC pipe, wood, and hardware. Tuned to the pentatonic scale, sound is produced by swatting the ends of the tubes with rubber swatters — actually, repurposed mouse pads. “The concept was to make a simple tuned percussion instrument using easily gathered construction materials,” says Magalhaes, whose past MOVIS artwork has been photography-based.
There are notes for several simple tunes printed out so that even the most novice among us can create music that reverberates through the woods.
Marsha Levin-Rojer, who often “draws” with mono-filament and other fine fibers, has created “Homage to the Spider, a Natural Recyclist,” a web of mesh produce bags stitched together. “It is common for spiders to eat their own web daily to recoup some of the energy used in spinning,” says Levin-Rojer. “Inspired by this natural recyclist, I have created my own web using recycled materials and assorted packing materials.”
Artists are often known for rather lengthy statements to explain the theory behind their work. Berendina Buist lays claim to “the shortest statement in history”: “A fox crosses the woods. I think I see him. An orange afterimage is all that remains.”
Buist, who often combines photography and fiber in her artwork, has “spun” yarn, in shades of green and bright orange, around two trees. Depending on the time of the day, the installation reflects light in different ways, creating hallucinatory effects. Walks in the woods and communion in the wild often lead to such images, leaving us to wonder: Did we really see a fox? Or was it a weasel? It evokes, for this viewer, a critter from a Patricia Highsmith story from long ago, “The Empty Birdhouse,” in which the main character occasionally catches glimpses of a “yuma,” an eternally reappearing ferret-like creature scurrying quickly in the corners of her vision, suggestive of a connection to another world.
Several years ago, after her mother passed away in Holland, Buist discovered her yarn and began incorporating it in artwork. “I never thought I would find myself knitting but then it happened and for a reason,” she said at the time. In a more lengthy artist statement back then she wrote: “The child and the parent, they are distinct persons and lead their own lives. But on further inspection they are made of the same material. The thread is the same, taking on different colors at different times. The feminine craft of knitting, a tool par excellence to contemplate the relationship, one stitch at a time, the repetitive motion an entrance to be the daughter and then to become the mother.”
It is pleasant, indeed, to walk through the woods, listening to birdsong, discovering the surprises along the trail. Eve Ingalls’ investigations in the environment and our relationship to it is in play even in her indoor work. A one-time student of Josef Albers, Ingalls was a painter until the turn of the millennium, when she turned to sculpture and the discovery of cast paper. For her outdoor piece, “Communicating Underground,” she has used sturdier materials — foam, aluminum wire, and Renshape 15 (low-density foam boards). The result appears as a rotting tree stump around which a silvery hand has formed, extending tree-like silvery roots that ensnarl the stump.
The stump was cut down long ago by humans, says Ingalls, but is now bravely supporting the lively growth of a young tree. “The young tree’s roots are tightly hugging the remains of the dead stump while seeking paths down into the earth where contact can be made with a gigantic underground fungal web.”
The Mycelial web — the “Wood Wide Web” — enables multiple forms of underground communication and exchange between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi. With species-appropriate fungi, sharing begins.
“The image of a living tree in this sculpture participates in this kind of complex teamwork between the dead and the living, between the visible and the invisible,” says Ingalls. “It leans on and embraces the dead tree stump even as its own life and growth are enabled by the largely invisible, living Wood Wide Web.”
Rutgers University professor of art emeritus and Lambertville resident John Goodyear (his work is in the collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; the British Museum, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona; and in New York, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan museums, as well as the National Museum of American Art and Smithsonian in D.C.) says he has titled his piece “’Aviary Art’ since birds don’t study aesthetics. It is also a way of using up some cat food cans and a kind of reverse comment on outdoor cats catching birds to eat.”
Tucked into the woods, almost hidden, “Aviary Art” is an assembly of crossed perches onto which are nailed the cat food cans, filled with birdseed. On the day I visited, a chickadee was enjoying an afternoon snack.
“On a visual level the sculpture’s format suggests a bush or small tree,” says Goodyear. “Several people mentioned they walked right by it without seeing it. This integration of the work with its surroundings is important. Birds may be more attracted to it than people.”
MOVIS: Into the Woods, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Reserve, 31 Titus Mill Road, Pennington. On view through Thursday, August 31. Free. Open daily, dawn until dusk. Pick up a map in the Watershed Education Center. 609-737-3735 or thewatershed.org.