What do pencils, shiny rocks, and dead animals have to do with American art?
SAAM's Re:Frame explores American art’s many meanings and connections with experts across the Smithsonian.
MELISSA: I have to admit, sometimes with contemporary art, I just don’t get it. Take this piece for example: “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” by Teresita Fernández. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I bet there’s a great story here if we do a little digging.
Have you ever thought about the connection between art and... well then, buckle up. Join me and your personal team of Smithsonian experts as we “Re:Frame” American art.
It says on the wall label that Teresita Fernández created “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” in 2010. It also says that the piece is made of graphite. Wait, aren’t pencils made of graphite? I happen to have a pencil right here, because in an art museum, you’re only allowed to have pencils in the gallery. But this doesn’t look anything like that. I wonder how the artist could make graphite look like this. It’s almost as if it was painted on. I think I need to find a graphite expert. Liz Cottrell is a geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and an expert on all things rocks, minerals, and metals. What is graphite?
LIZ COTTRELL: Well, I have to tell you that graphite is often dead animals, so we – humans, animals, plants – are composed of carbon. We’re carbon-dominated lifeforms, and when we die, our bodies and tissues decompose, and under heat and pressure in the earth, organic carbon turns into graphite. Diamonds and graphite are both simply carbon but formed under different conditions in the earth.
MELISSA: So why is graphite soft when diamonds are so hard?
LC: That’s a great question. Graphite is so soft because of the arrangement of the carbon atoms. The carbon atoms are arranged in planes, in sheets, and those sheets simply slough off when you rub it, so graphite is really commonly employed in pencils. I have a pencil right here, and if I were to scratch a piece of paper, planes of carbon would come off and leave a mark on the paper. This is how it looks right when it comes out of the ground, and you can see that if you were an artist, you might be naturally drawn to graphite. Graphite is famous for having this metallic luster. It’s very shiny and silvery and extremely beautiful straight out of the ground. One of the most famous graphite localities, historically, is in England, where they discovered this useful property where it leaves a trace, and that’s where pencils were first developed.
MELISSA: Woah, wait a minute – graphite, landscape, I think I have an idea, and I’m hoping Carmen Ramos, SAAM’s curator of Latino art, can confirm my theory. I’m trying to wrap my head around this piece, “Nocturnal,” by Teresita Fernández, and I think I have an idea. Is this piece a landscape?
CARMEN RAMOS: Yeah, this is absolutely a landscape on so many levels. If you look at the work, the top part is very smooth. It almost looks like it’s painted on the surface. Then there’s a layer that represents the water that is polished, and it has this very kind of shiny appearance. Then on the bottom, which represents the land, it sort of looks like graphite in the state that you find it in the earth. Teresita Fernández is not interested in depicting a specific place but is really interested in triggering our personal association, the visitor’s personal association, with the place of their own choosing. When you look at this work, it has a kind of generic feel, right?
MELISSA: It’s almost like it’s a different place for every person who looks at it.
MELISSA: So how did the artist create “Nocturnal”?
CR: For this project, she really had to learn about the material qualities of graphite, so she spoke to many different people, scientists, chemists to learn about the properties of graphite, how to use it in different ways. She was really intrigued with this idea of creating a picture whose material is like completely integrated with the image that she’s creating. An image of the land made from the land.
MELISSA: Okay, I’m happy to admit there is way more to “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” than I originally thought. Every time we use a pencil to write or draw, we’re using graphite, a substance which forms in the earth from organic carbon. Graphite has been a popular art material for centuries, but Teresita Fernández is using it in a totally unique way. Instead of drawing a landscape with a graphite pencil, she's constructed a landscape out of graphite itself. “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” is a sculpture of the land made from the land. Pretty darn cool.
In this series, E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino art, discusses the exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Artat the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This episode looks at the work Nocturnal (Horizon Line) by Teresita Fernández. Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's pioneering collection of Latino art. It explores how Latino artists shaped the artistic movements of their day and recalibrated key themes in American art and culture.
E. CARMEN RAMOS: This is Teresita Fernández’s “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” from 2010. Teresita Fernández forms part of a younger generation of American artists that has continued to explore the legacy of minimalism in contemporary art. Artists in the 1960s such as Richard Serra freed sculpture from the pedestal and created environmental sculptural works that allowed viewers to engage their works not only with their eyes but with their bodies in space.
Teresita Fernández has taken these concerns in new directions. In this work, she’s created an image of a soothing nighttime scene, where viewers standing in front of the work feel as if they’re transported to a physical place. The work was inspired by the history of the valley of Borrowdale in Cumbria, England where graphite was first discovered. This work is entirely composed of graphite. The artist was interested in this material, which is traditionally found in pencils in which we use to draw and artists use to create images of the landscape. She was inspired to create an image of the land that actually came from the land because graphite is mined directly from the Earth. She was inspired by the thought of the valley of Borrowdale as being a huge drawing and she wanted to sort of recreate that.
As with many of her works, she works with outside consultants to learn how to manipulate her chosen media. In this case, she learned to apply graphite in different ways from graphite that appears painted on the surface, as you see in the top register, where graphite is dripped, appears to be dripped, on the surface in the middle register, and where graphite is applied in a kind of clumpy form, which refers to graphite in its natural state – that’s how it’s mined and kind of chunky clumps.
Teresita Fernández seeks not to represent a specific place. This is not any place, but it’s a place of her imagination. She encourages viewers to view this work and to feel as if they are transported to a place of their own. Each viewer who interacts with this work will have a different association. The work is displayed on the low side, so when you encounter it, you feel as though you’re actually seeing the horizon line, looking across a large body of water. As you walk past it, the graphite, especially the middle register, begins to capture light, giving the impression of glistening moonlight on the surface of a body of water.
Landscape has been a very important genre in the history of American art ever since the 19th century. Teresita Fernández is part of a larger and younger generation of American artists who imbue this genre with new ideas and take it in new directions.
Teresita Fernández is a contemporary artist based in New York. Her large-scale, sculptural works showcase her interest in perception, and are often inspired by landscape and natural phenomena, as well as diverse historical and cultural references. Fernández's work is included in numerous museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Walker Art Center, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant," a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. In 2011, Fernández was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Her work Nocturnal (Horizon Line) is part of the Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, opening October 25 at the museum. Fernández will discuss three of her installation pieces and the evolution of her work.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge.