Meet the Artist: Lauren Fensterstock from Forces of Nature Renwick Invitational 2020

  • LAUREN FENSTERSTOCK: I’m Lauren Fensterstock, and I’m here today to talk about my site-specific work in the exhibition “Forces of Nature: the Renwick Invitational 2020” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    My work in this exhibition is titled “The Totality of Time Lusters the Dusk,” and I really wanted a kind of almost ridiculously grandiose title for this piece because I think the piece itself is kind of poking at a magnificence beyond human comprehension. The piece centers around the appearance of a comet, and I’m really interested in comets. They’re things that have appeared in important artwork like the “Bayeux Tapestry” and Giotto’s paintings over millennia. They exist in this span beyond human comprehension, arcing around our universe for millions of years, but they’re also just dirty snowballs. There’s something about this space between something that is so mundane and so magnificent that I’m interested in, that those two things can actually be quite the same.

    There are two black mirrors that have been kind of captivating me for over a decade. One is the Claude glass, which was a seventeenth century invention used by amateur artists to observe the landscape. The other is the scrying mirror, which is also a black mirror, which was used to divine the future. Actually, the piece behind me, which is carved obsidian, is an example of a scrying mirror. There is something about these two tools, one used to observe the world around us empirically, and the other used to try to touch a world that we can’t know, we don’t see. I feel like I’m somehow suspended between these two mirrors, and they’ve been at the center of my work for a long time.

    The whole landscape is rendered in black, and it’s partly in response to my inspiration from the two mirrors that I mentioned earlier, the Claude glass and the scrying mirror, but there is something about the power of black. I think it’s really a magical color. I think in the absence of light we’re able to see things that have always been there but that we’ve been overlooking. It forces your eye to change, and you suddenly can become aware of subtleties of tone and form and sheen. I’m really interested in that kind of close looking because I think if there is a spirituality or a magic in this world, it’s not one that’s abstract, it’s not one that’s far away. It’s one that is here all around us, and we just have to look a little bit closer to find it.

    It’s such an honor to have my work at the Renwick Gallery and its strong connection to the crafts and decorative arts, which is the field I consider my home. The architecture is so symbolic, you know this architecture that is really at the heart of the identity of America. I think to see that architecture being interrupted, interacted, maybe even overwhelmed by the inexplicable forces of nature I think says something about where we are as humans and Americans at this moment. If people can leave with this sense that they are suspended between a past and a future, I think that’s important to me. It doesn’t absolve us of the ethics of our moment, but I think it helps us understand them in perspective and just the long unfolding of events, human, natural, animal, and mineral, and maybe cosmic.

    Lauren Fensterstock, one of four artists featured in the exhibition Forces of Nature: Renwick Invitational 2020, creates detailed, large-scale installation artworks using labor-intensive modes of making drawn from the decorative arts, including paper quilling and mosaic. For Forces of Nature, the Smithsonian American Art Museum commissioned a site-specific work. It is the first in a new series for the artist inspired by sources like The Book of Miracles, a richly illustrated 16th-century German manuscript. This artwork transforms a gallery at the Renwick into an otherworldly landscape that captures the power and awe inherent in our celestial world.

    Forces of Nature: Renwick Invitational 2020 was presented by the Smithsonian American Art Museum at its Renwick Gallery from October 16, 2020, to June 27, 2021. The exhibition features artists Lauren Fensterstock, Timothy Horn, Debora Moore, and Rowland Ricketts. Each of these invited artists looks to nature as a way to contemplate what it means to be human in a world increasingly chaotic and divorced from our physical landscape. Representing craft media from fiber to mosaic to glass and metals, these artists approach the long history of art’s engagement with the natural world through unconventional and highly personal perspectives.

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