Art of the year
Oklahoma artists show their work after a year of ambitious creating with ‘Art 365.’
Pete Froslie didn’t set out to become a 21stcentury alchemist with his “Art 365” project.
But in the process of studying the complex commodity chains that supply trace elements that go into computer components like hard drives, heat sinks and capacitors, the Norman artist began mining gold, silver and other precious metals from the pile of electronic waste now on view at Norman’s MAINSITE Contemporary Art gallery.
“Alchemy has been in my work probably for some time, but not literal alchemy. I didn’t land in the space where I’m like, ‘I’m looking for the Philosophers’ Stone,’ ” Froslie said. “I just landed in a space where I’m genuinely
fascinated by lead’s reaction to silver and how much I can recycle these things, measure them back out, and reconfigure them as I sort of move forward.”
Reactions and reconfigurations are expected for artists who go through “Art 365,” the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition’s triennial project that offers state artists a year and $12,000 to create innovative artwork in collaboration with a nationally recognized curator.
“It’s designed to be a transformative experience for the artists,” OVAC Associate Director Lauren Scarpello said. “The ‘Art 365’ program kind of puts us on the map in the art world. We’re doing conceptual, ambitious projects here that are really on par with some of the larger arts communities in cities nationwide.”
“Art 365” is such a big undertaking that OVAC only offers it to five artists every three years. The nonprofit organization last year received a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to fund the 2017 cycle.
OVAC sifted through 78 applicants and selected six artists to develop five projects for "Art 365." The 2017 participants —Froslie; Amy andJames McGirk, of Tahlequah; Narciso Arguelles, Edmond; Andy Mattern, Stillwater; and Kelly Rogers, Oklahoma City —worked with Dana Turkovic, curator of exhibitions at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, on projects that are both high concept and highly personal.
The divergent projects are on view through Aug. 11 at Norman’s MAINSITE. The exhibit then will move to Tulsa’s Hardesty Arts Center for an October and November run.
“For me, among the transformational aspects of this project is the freedom, the freedom to pursue a project for the duration with this support,” Mattern said. “This was literally the first time where I could set aside some of those boundaries that have always been in place in order to focus on the work, for the work. And that meant something as simple as allowing myself to buy something that I wouldn’t normally buy —a piece of equipment or some materials —and I think freedom, as an ingredient, produces better art.”
These are the stories behind the five projects that came out the 2017 edition of “Art 365”:
When he moved to Stillwater two years ago to teach photography at Oklahoma State University, Andy Mattern, who hails from New Mexico, had never heard of or ventured into a storm shelter. “On walks in our neighborhood, I would notice these little chimneys poking out of people’s backyards, and I had no idea what they were,” he recalled. “That was the impetus to start investigating what they were and then actually going in one and realizing that they have this echo and they have this light quality. … Part of what I encountered in this project is the shared experience of these spaces: As Oklahomans, everybody has their story.”
He quickly realized that the “fraidy holes” were basically giant pinhole cameras just wait- ing for someone to capture the images that could be created by the shelter’s dim, hopeful glow.
“All you need for a camera is a dark space, and a hole that light comes in through. … A pinhole (camera) just has one extra piece of material, and that’s something that gathers the image, whether it’s a piece of film, a piece of light-sensitive paper or a digital sensor,” he said. “These are already dark holes; they just need an aperture in order to become a pinhole camera. That was my initial thought, and upon visiting many of these, I realized that in fact I didn’t even have to add that aperture, it already existed in the form of the vent. These are cameras in the wild, if you will.”
For his project “Shelter,” he went door to door, asking neighbors if he could venture into their shelters to make art.
“People were so nice. They were so welcoming. With the exception of one person, everyone said yes,” Mattern said.
“Every time I made an exposure, I didn’t know what it would look like. I knew generally. I knew that it was going to be a black rectangle with a white circle in it because I’m holding this paper up against the hole. … But I couldn’t control the composition, and the exposure was always a guess. “Something that came out of it that I really enjoyed is the astronomical appearance of the installation, so each image is its own little celestial body floating up in a constellation. … And I never could have predicted that.”
Amy andJames McGirk are hoping to experience unexpected outcomes with their multiyear project “Cognitive Artifacts: Art and Value.”
“For two years, I’ve been walking around Tahlequah taking pictures, so I’ve accumulated a database of about 100,000 images. My wife has kind of sifted through this database, and she’s chosen some of these images and she’s made paintings after them,” he said. “So, she’s laying those out, almost like you would at a thrift store. … Then, we’re saying, ‘You can have one of these paintings. You can take one of these paintings without payment, but there has to be an exchange. What that exchange is that we have to take a picture of you holding this painting, and then we’re going stick it up and it will be included in the art (installation)’. And then after that we’re going to follow up.”
The couple, who moved to Oklahoma a few years ago from New York, have been working through two cycles of their artistic experiment in Tahlequah and Norman and plan to embark on a third when the exhibit moves to Tulsa. They are hoping to eventually get another grant to create a book of photos and essays about the project.
Their venture is examining how people react to receiving a high-end piece of art for free. Do they treasure it because they got such a windfall? Or do they fail to value it because it was given away? “It’s process art, so it’s all about creating this kind of creative process … So, we’re going to see what happens to that artwork. Ideally, we’re going to get into people’s homes and take a picture of it in there,” said James McGirk, who is a writer and teacher. “We’re hoping that some people will destroy these things, some people will kind of put them in a place of pride, and some people will probably obviously throw something together at the last minute to kind of pretend like they’ve had the art out.”
Adescendant of famed Native American ballerinas and Oklahoma natives Marjorie and Maria Tallchief, Wanbli Tallchief gracefully pirouettes through the half-finished halls of Oklahoma City’s American IndianCultural Center and Museum in Narciso Arguelles’ atmospheric “Art 365” short film “Imaginary Spaces.”
“The whole history is very interesting of Native Americans doing something that’s very European, something that was born in France,” Arguelles said.
The Chicano artist, who was born in the United States and grew up in Mexico, collaborated with several performers, including ballet dancers, Spanishspeaking singers, Native American drummers and local rapper Jabee for the film and a live performance at the “Art 365” Norman exhibit opening.
“We would do these art interventions. I know that term has not been in vogue for a while. … When they (people) think of an intervention, they think of alcohol, right? But the phrasing comes from you’re intervening in a space that normally would not have art,” he said. “For instance, that ‘Fearless Girl’ on Wall Street, yes, that’s a sculpture, but it’s also an art intervention because it reacts to the other sculpture (‘Charging Bull’). … It plays around with recontextualizing spaces.”
With Jabee, he invited the rapper to recite one of his songs about the Black Lives Matter protests in a coffeehouse in the spoken-word style of a 1950s beat poet. “When I make art, I have to treat it like a privilege, but it’s also a responsibility for me to bear witness or to try to bring about change —either political or economical, social or political change — to try to affect society in some way. So that was very important,” Arguelles said.
When Kelly Rogers heard that the number had changed, she was shocked and angry. “A good friend of mine and I were having coffee and she was telling me about some volunteer work that she did … and she said one in three girls in Oklahoma County is sexually abused by the time she turns 18. When I was growing up, that number was one in four. … This problem is not getting better, and there’s also a real strong sense that the cavalry ain’t coming,” said Rogers, who said she experienced childhood abuse by a family member who has since left her family.
“For me, that’s also a personal story, so when I heard that one
in three number, it was jarring because it was like, ‘I thought I knew that number. That’s my number. That’s supposed to be one in four.’ ”
She is bringing attention to the alarming number with her “Art 365” project, “Tales of Whoa,” a 12-foot hand-stitched tapestry mural that depicts dozens of little girls running, jumping and playing. One in three is marked with red to highlight the startling statistic.
“There are a lot of people, I think, who felt like I did for a long time: that they’re alone. So I wanted to create this multitude of figures and then illuminate every third one in some way so I could really express how many one in three is, because it’s easy to sort of hear that number and then let it roll off,” she said.
“I wanted to express how many of us there are, but like glorify the resilience of surviving, of what it means to live after trauma.”
She said the title of her sprawling work is deliberate.
“I work at a crisis helpline. I hear a lot of survivor stories,” she said. “You know that idea of that dreaded day job for the artist? I don’t feel that way about mine. I love it … and I wanted to take that ‘Woah, I can’t believe what people can get through,’ that concept of just a human being and the will to survive.”
‘Aesthetics’ and alchemy
Pete Froslie was looking for a change, and “Art 365” provided the catalyst. “Basically, I needed to change directions. I spent a lot of time focusing on electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering,” he said. “It had a been a long desire to get into chemistry, biology.”
Although art, sciences and yes, modern-day alchemy, combine with intriguing results in his “Aesthetics of Capital,” the University of Oklahoma faculty member said the project’s initial inspiration was his interest in commodity chains and the complexities in obtaining the materials needed to create smartphones and computers that quickly become obsolete.
“I was thinking primarily about tantalum, cobalt and specific materials that go into capacitors and electronic components … and the Congo and really highly geopolitically dangerous spaces. That’s a dangerous space because of the things that are coming out of the Earth,” he said. “So this isn’t actually technically about a pile of electronics.”
Many people may not be aware that their electronic devices are crafted with trace amounts of precious metals like gold, which is prized for its conductivity. He started using scientific techniques to mine the metals out of discarded computer parts.
In the process, he got the change he was looking for.
“I really developed a relationship with what lead, silver, copper and gold do in chemical reactions,” Froslie said. “I decided I want to make a ring, like a physical ring that you would wear, but not with any sort of timeline … So, I want to make a ring over the next five or 10 or 15 years of collecting materials, refining them from electronics and using the experiences I get kind of researching to contribute slowly to the development of this kind of artifact.
“It’s a strange process, with a lot of layers.”
Narciso Arguelles, 2017 “Art 365” participant, poses with his work June 9 at MAINSITE gallery in Norman.
LEFT: James McGirk, 2017 “Art 365” participant, poses with his work on June 9 at MAINSITE gallery in Norman.
BELOW: Andy Mattern, 2017 “Art 365” participant, poses with his work June 9 at MAINSITE gallery in Norman.