Swarovski crystal, quartz, obsidian, onyx, hematite, glittering glass, paper, plexiglass, wood, cement, and lath, converge in a transcendental, labyrinthine large-scale installation that conveys the prowess of the cosmos and contemplates the chaos of nature.
Lauren Fensterstock began working on The totality of time lusters the dusk (2020) in May 2019 to take over an 18-foot wide, 60-foot long space at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. It’s the first in a new series of works inspired, in part, by The Book of Miracles (also known as The Augsburg Book of Miracles, named for the Bavarian city), a lavishly illustrated 16th-century German manuscript depicting apocalyptic visions of that time. Including 123 surviving folios with 23 inserts, every page is illuminated in full color gouache and watercolor and captioned in German Gothic script.
“I designed the whole thing with that space in mind,” said Fensterstock. “There is something amazing about that room because the architecture is so grand, but intimate.”
The totality of time lusters the dusk opens to the public with socially distanced precautions on October 16 as part of the exhibition Forces of Nature: Renwick Invitational 2020, also featuring works by Timothy Horn, Debora Moore, and Rowland Ricketts.
“I knew I wanted to make something really cinematic, where you have one shot and series of vignettes,” explained Fensterstock, who lives and works in Portland, Maine. “I also intended to create a space that felt immersive. Conceptually, I have been working with issues of the landscapes for a long time. Different traditions of depicting the landscape express humans’ sense of their place in the world. I made a little shift from exploring a place to exploring a situation.”
The exhibition delves into the interrelationship between art and nature, displaying a broad array of art using craft media, ranging from fiber and mosaic to metal and glass, to scrutinize the enduring history of art’s potential to interact with the natural world through distinctive and deeply personal viewpoints.
“It’s more about what’s happening in the place,” said Fensterstock, of her otherworldly installation depicting a spectacular comet. “I’m looking at weather, and not just climate change, but also historically how we have used weather to express our emotions, fears, and anxieties.”
Fascinated by “all these explanations of how comets struck” while referencing The Book of Miracles, Fensterstock said “I was looking also at the stylization of these 16th century manuscripts and they sort of influenced the decorative appearance of the piece. I also love comets.”
Fensterstock was also inspired of the Bayeux Tapestry, a massive embroidered cloth depicting the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and culminating in the Battle of Hastings. Featuring the first known image of Halley’s Comet in the upper border, scholars believe it dates back to the 11th century.
“Comets are these amazing objects that travel throughout the universe. They are something so spectacular, yet mundane,” said Fensterstock, who has long worked with “materials and techniques associated with amateur ladies’ crafts that also have an architectural tradition. They don’t really make it to the canon of art history, but they are so culturally significant. They are so often limited to the domestic sphere, but they speak to history. I’ve always been drawn to work that is material-focused, and so much of the power is from the materials.”
Fensterstock sourced many of her materials, including vintage Swarovski crystal, from Wolf E. Myrow, Inc., a wildly unique closeout jewelry making supplies dealer in Providence, Rhode Island. She said she seeks out “anything I can find that is black and shiny. The part of the mosaic I love is this sense of gathering all these disparate and broken things and making them whole. I think there is magic in that.”
“So much of political turmoil is based on stories we tell ourselves rather than materials around us,” Fensterstock said. “Recognizing we are things working with things is important. It’s one of the powers artists have. As an artist I am committed to objects.”
Leaving Maine for the first time to spend a week installing The totality of time lusters the dusk, “had its own complexity of logistics,” she said. “Just working on this piece during the quarantine was really intense because I had this singular purpose while there was so much uncertainty and the comet itself looks like the coronavirus.”
Fensterstock began working on main part of comet in March as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the global art world and forever rattled our lives. “I’m a news junkie, and I was streaming CNN in the studio and I saw the image of the coronavirus for the first time and I looked at the piece and I feel like I manifested it.”
Forces of Nature is the ninth installment of the Renwick Invitational, established in 2000 as a biennial showcase to highlight mid-career and emerging artists. The juried exhibition is curated by Emily Zilber, independent curator and director of curatorial affairs and strategic partnerships at the Wharton Esherick Museum in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
“We are delighted to welcome again visitors in our galleries with new health and safety precautions as we continue to offer robust and lively online programming,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “This exhibition and these inspiring artists invite us to slow down and reflect on the natural world around us through the lens of American contemporary craft at a time when we seek solace and well-being.”
On view through June 27, 2021, the museum is limiting the number of visitors to Forces of Nature under new safety measures at the Renwick Gallery. Timed-entry passes aren’t required at this time, but visitors may have to wait outside if the galleries reach capacity.
This year’s artists were selected by Zilber, Nora Atkinson, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge for the Renwick Gallery, and Stefano Catalani, executive director of the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle.
“The artists featured in this exhibition look to nature in a variety of ways, seeing it as a guide, partner, adversary, ward or inspiration for their diverse creative practices,” Zilber said. “Craft’s complex relationship with the natural world can help us understand our place in the order of things, which feels especially potent during these challenging times.”