A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Oct 3, 2011
In the small Class of 1925 Gallery at the Memorial Union, a quiet, nearly transparent installation takes my breath away. Lights shine onto sheets of clear plastic cut into intricate patterns, resulting in fantastic shadows and brilliant reflections. At times, the shadows look like drawn markings on the walls, prompting me to alternate between close-up and far-away examination to fully comprehend the stunning whole-room installation.
Allison Fox Schneider created Intimate Mechanisms, a new exhibition open through November 1, from plastic that she cut into organic, connected forms that hint at elements of nature from flowers to undersea creatures to human anatomy.
It’s a journey—one that must be experienced in person—to walk through the installation in this intimate space, and the artist was kind enough to share the the path that brought the work from a concept to art on the gallery walls.
How did the idea for Intimate Mechanisms come about?
I created this piece and the technique behind it while I was working on my MFA in painting at Syracuse University. Much of my work is painting and drawing ... layered combinations of pattern, figure, spaces and abstraction. I began working more sculpturally to build on that body of work and find new ways to use unfamiliar materials. I wanted to address concepts not just through the imagery of a piece, but through the physical material and how it was used.
Why did you choose plastic as your medium? Is this a material you’ve worked with before or was this a new endeavor for you?
This is the most substantial use I’ve made of plastic. There is something about the clarity of the material that is very appealing to me. It’s clean and neutral, but its lack of definition also begs closer study. Using only transparent material allows the lines of shadow to seem more substantial than their source. This causes the focus to shift between the physical, the ethereal and the imagined spaces that lie in between.
The interplay between light and shadow is incredible. How did you achieve this? And how much of this was planned versus experimentation?
The shadows are what motivated me to make this piece. I discovered the technique early on in some experiments with plastic, cutting it to create an edge that is denser than the rest, which then translates to a darker shadow. I did a small piece, which led to a larger one, and then I pretty much had to fill a room. The interplay between the transparent material and its opaque shadow not only interested me visually, but it seemed to speak about the larger ideas I was interested in: fragility, the relation of the physical and the impermanent, the connection between disparate spaces, transience, entanglement, memory and loss.
What inspired the forms you created out of the plastic?
The imagery is inspired by different sources: flora, fauna, organic and anatomical structures, atmospheric and geological phenomena, and ornamental motifs. I also play with shifting scales: a form that might read as the silhouette of a tree could be seen as the bronchial passages of a lung, crow’s feet at the corner of smiling eyes, a circulatory system, a tumor, a lightning burst, a neuron, a star cluster, a river bed. I love how those representations remain ambiguous, but yet some commonality runs between them. The overlapping structures share a richness. There was no pre-planning or sketches; everything was cut directly into the plastic, making marks and then responding directly to those. Each choice had a sense of permanence to it: the cuts can’t be undone, and that allowed me to embrace my first instincts. Each installation of the work changes it, which brings welcome surprises for me each time.
Tell me about the exhibition’s title—why did you choose this name?
I was thinking about the forms and systems that inspire so much in this artwork, what these things had in common. So many things in life are held in place by these very fragile workings, things that seem so delicate and mostly unknowable, but which are resilient enough to stick around and keep endless functions working. We have to trust in that. And yet they’re not flawless. Processes falter, decay steps in, and as disturbing as that can be, even those changes can still be beautiful. “Intimate mechanisms” seemed to be an honest way to describe this work.
What was the most challenging part of creating this installation, and what element means the most to you?
Getting the lighting right is a challenge. It is completely essential to the final piece, but getting the shadows to read like a pencil line is a somewhat exacting process. Many ways to err, but that shadow is what brings it all together for me. If it was just the plastic, or an actual pencil drawing on that wall, it would lose much of its magic for me.
What’s next for you?
This exhibition will be the last I’ll have in Madison for a while. I’m moving to Jerusalem for nine months with my husband in November, thanks to a fellowship he received to work on his PhD dissertation. I’ll be focused exclusively on making new artwork during that time. It’s a fantastic opportunity for both of us to pursue what we’re passionate about,; I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll post updates to my website foxschneider.com if you’d like to check back in with me.
Intimate Mechanisms runs through November 1 at the Class of 1925 Gallery on the second floor of the Memorial Union.
Photo courtesy of Allison Fox Schneider.